The Real Story Behind Elizabeth Warren's Viral Pinky Promises with Girls as She Champions 'Big Change' for America

Adam Carlson

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is known for her sweeping progressive ideas on the presidential campaign trail — and the many, many policy plans she has drafted to support her call for “big, structural change” — but it is the smallest moment she shares with some supporters that they will remember most.

You may have seen the viral photos or even witnessed one such exchange during the Massachusetts lawmaker’s selfie lines at her events across the country: Warren, 70, does the same thing every time she meets a girl.

“I drop down to my knees and ask her name and then say, ‘My name is Elizabeth, and I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.’ And then we do pinky promises,” she tells PEOPLE.

One-on-one with her youngest supporters, she is thinking about a new future.

“For us to change, that means we’ve all got to be in the fight,” Warren says, channeling her years as a school teacher, law professor and consumer advocate. “And what’s the best way to draw more people into the fight? It’s to have fighters who look like them.”

Warren, along with fellow Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, are leading a historic number of women in the 2020 presidential race. They are part of PEOPLE’s Women Changing the World 2019 — expanding the political conversation through sheer numbers, a group too large to be contained by one label or cliché.

“They each bring something different,” says presidential historian and Leadership in Turbulent Times author Doris Kearns Goodwin. “The mere fact of them being there opens up the pool of talent to half the population.”

Warren tells PEOPLE: “It’s pretty exciting that at every debate there have been multiple women on stage. That when I go to the Iowa Wing Ding or to a small town in New Hampshire, the chances are that I could run into another woman running for president. That’s pretty amazing.”

“But it’s also about making change,” she continues. “It’s about the past, but it’s about the future. It’s about issues that have received lip service forever, but never any really passionate push behind it.”

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (left) locks pinky fingers with Sarah Buse-Morley, 5, as sister, Rebecca, 8, looks on following a teacher's union town hall on May 1 in Philadelphia. | Mark Makela/Getty

At this point, Warren launches into an impassioned and detailed five-minute call for universal childcare and pre-K in America and raising the wages for early childhood education instructors. She draws from her own experience, describing her first year as a college teacher in Texas while raising children and the invaluable assistance of her 78-year-old widowed Aunt Bee in Oklahoma, who arrived with help when she needed it most — a mercy from more difficult circumstances that, under a Warren childcare proposal, millions of others would avoid.

“Running for president means I have a chance to talk about this to thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes on television even millions of people every week,” Warren says. “I love it.”

Since her first political race, for one of Massachusetts’ Senate seats, Warren has made reaching out to women and girls a central part of her campaigning.

Back then, as she remembers it, “People told me that Massachusetts would not elect a woman.”

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“I thought about that and decided that may be true, but I’m going to make every day count,” Warren says. “This was one way to make every day count — that every day my plan was to meet at least one little girl and do a pinky promise to remember that girls run for the Senate. Now it’s to make sure they know girls run for president.”

Some of these moments have become headlines in their own way. One 12-year-old girl who met Warren in Iowa in the spring, Elizabeth Duncan, told the Des Moines Register that meeting the senator, pinky and all, was “amazing.”

“She said, ‘We’re in this together,’ ” the girl told the Register.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren | CQ Roll Call via AP Images
Sen. Elizabeth Warren | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In Philadelphia in May, Warren met 5-year-old Sarah Buse-Morley, repeating the ritual. According to the Register, she pinky-promises a few times at each event. In August, an Arizona dad shared a photo of his daughter with Warren and the tweet was shared thousands of times.

Speaking with PEOPLE, Warren says she has a story she wants to tell. It’s about a Minnesota rally in August that drew 12,000 people. In the selfie line, a young girl about 8 years old approached with her mom. They pinky promised, they had their photo taken and when Warren stood up, she said, “It’s time to have a woman in the White House.”

The little girl “turns around and puts her hands on her hips and says, ‘Yes it is’ — in this putout voice and then says, ‘I’ve been waiting for this since …’ and she searches her memory and says, ‘Practically since kindergarten,’ ” Warren remembers. “We all got so tickled over the fact that she wanted us to know enough is enough.”

Warren couldn’t agree more.

“I’ve done pinky promises with babies who are only a couple of weeks old and I’ve done pinky promises with elderly women who have been pushed in their wheelchairs by their granddaughters,” she says. “It’s a reminder that for a long time women have been shut out of the process, devalued, told to be quiet. We’re just not doing that anymore.”