Remembering New Jersey's Millicent Fenwick at 100: Outspoken, unique and 'the conscience of Congress'

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Remembering New Jersey's Millicent Fenwick at 100: Outspoken, unique and 'the conscience of Congress'



fenwick_optBY ERIC MODEL
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY

We like to describe these Journeys into New Jersey as explorations of the offbeat, off the beaten path, overlooked and forgotten.

Millicent Fenwick would have turned 100 on this day, February 25. It would be unfortunate if Mrs. Fenwick were overlooked and forgotten, especially at this time.

There's no sports arena, airport or train station named after her, but she was an enormously important and impactful figure.

Those old enough can still recall what a unique personality and public servant she was. To those too young to remember, she is worth noting.

Millicent Fenwick was probably best known as a four-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey – a Republican Congresswoman (1974-1982) who was noted for her political independence and a champion of liberal causes. Also a fashion editor and diplomat, she entered politics late in life (She first ran and won a seat in the State Legislature at the age of 59 and in Congress at 64).

She was renowned for her energy, independence, and colorful personality.

For example, she was known for her pipe smoking, a habit she adopted when her physician discouraged her from cigarettes. Described by many as tall and patrician, but down-to-earth and pungent, she inspired the Lacey Davenport character in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" cartoons.

She was a Republican who was an outspoken voice in favor of civil rights and the women's movement.

Fenwick was once described as the Katherine Hepburn of Politics. Charles Millard, a former aid and later a New York City Councilperson said, "with her dignity and elegance she could get away with saying things others couldn't."

Raised in comfortable circumstances in Bernardsville, she attended the exclusive Nightingdale-Bamford School in New York, and college at Columbia as well as the New School for Social Research. Afterwards, she modeled briefly for Harper's Bazaar, then worked as a writer and editor at Vogue magazine for 14 years with a wardrobe and style to match the position. In 1948 she compiled Vogue's Book of Etiquette, which sold a million copies.

In the midst of it she married as a young woman, but soon divorced, being left with two young children and a pile of debts. Refusing money from her family, she scraped by on her own.

Eventually, she inherited a fortune when her father died in 1956 but remained frugal, counting her change from coffee, using one lamp to work by and driving a Chevrolet that stood out in a community of luxury automobiles. She placed her assets in a blind trust to avoid political conflicts of interest.

On her substantive record, she won the respect of her political peers, sometimes grudgingly, for her advocacy on a wide variety of issues, including civil rights, peace in Vietnam, aid for asbestos victims, help for the poor, prison reform, strip-mining controls, reduction of military programs, urban renewal, campaign-spending limits, gun control and restrictions on capital punishment.

Among Mrs. Fenwick's proudest achievements was being a lead sponsor of the resolution creating the commission to monitor the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights.

In contrast to today's frequently polarized political landscape, Millicent Fenwick was unique as a liberal Republican. But even back then her views often placed her at odds with her party's leaders and seemed at odds with the wealthy district in New Jersey's horse country that she represented.

She fought for bathrooms for migrant workers, and that earned her the nickname of Outhouse Millie. Others called her the Bella Abzug of Somerset County, a nod to the outspoken former Congresswoman.

She was known for her opposition to corruption by both parties and special interest groups. Walter Cronkite called her "the conscience of Congress."

Although strong-willed, Millicent Fenwick had a unique ability to bring people together - no matter their political persuasion.

For example, in a debate over equal rights for women, she once recalled, a male legislator said: "I just don't like this amendment. I've always thought of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good." Her reply was classic Fenwick: "That's the way I feel about men, too. I only hope for your sake that you haven't been disappointed as often as I have."

When she left the State Assembly in 1974, one man, reflecting the times, kissed her, saying: "We male chauvinist pigs all will miss you, Millicent, because you're a wonderful woman."

As noted above, Millicent Fenwick is worth remembering as she would have turned 100. One of a kind, her story can still be instructive and relevant for us all today.

♦♦♦

You can find more on the life and career of Millicent Fenwick at:  Millicent Fenwick, Her Way, by Amy Schapiro (Rutgers University Press, 2003).

Eric Model explores the "offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten" on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at www.journeysinto.com.

 

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