Friday, March 28, 2014

Millicent Fenwick: A Woman with Fearless Character

by Leah Loscutoff, Archives and Special Collections Librarian and Special thanks to Doris Oliver, Assistant Curator, for her assistance with the research for this blog post

Millicent Fenwick speaking at technology
hall dinner,  June 1982.
Millicent Vernon Hammond Fenwick was born February 25, 1910, in New York City, and passed away September 16, 1992 at the age of 82.  She was born 10 years before women gained the right to vote, and the same year a voting machine was actually patented to restrict women’s votes. Millicent Fenwick would become a political force to be reckoned with, but politics wouldn’t become a part of her life until later on. She was a colorful character with a lot of personality. She even influenced Garry Trudeau’s cartoon character Lacey Davenport in Doonesbury.

Millicent was the daughter of a prominent family. Her father, Ogden H. Hammond, was a financier and state legislator and her mother was Mary Picton Stevens Hammond. When Mrs. Fenwick was 5, her mother, Mary Stevens, drowned when a German submarine sank the ocean liner Lusitania. Millicent was the great granddaughter of Edwin A. Stevens and Martha Bayard Dod Stevens, the founder of the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Millicent never received a high school diploma or college degree, but she studied philosophy under Bertrand Russell at the New School and spent time as a fashion model for Harper’s Bazaar. She was fluent in Italian, French, and Spanish. As a young woman, she fell in love with a married businessman, Hugh Fenwick. In June 1932, she married Hugh and together they operated a 100-acre chicken and dairy farm. The farm was financially disastrous, and her husband left her for a job abroad and they separated in 1938. After her husband left, she had to find work and support her two children on her own. Refusing money from her family, she scraped by on her own. A divorce with Hugh was finalized in 1945.

Without a high school diploma it was hard for her to secure anything, but in a stroke of luck she had two short stories published which led her to a job at Vogue magazine. She worked at Vogue as a feature writer from 1938-1952.  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 in a community of luxury vehicles.

Millicent Fenwick outside of Morton on River St., circa 1982.
Millicent first became interested in politics because of the plight of African Americans in America, and also the oppressive Nazi government in Germany. When she got into politics, she became an advocate for a variety of issues. Some of these issues include, Civil Rights, peace in Vietnam, help for the poor, prison reform, gun control, and urban renewal.  One of her proudest achievements was being a lead sponsor of the resolution creating the commission to monitor the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights. Millicent’s political career started later on in life.

She first ran and won a seat in the State Legislature at the age of 59 and in Congress at 64. The Congressional primary rival she beat was Thomas H. Kean, later elected Governor of New Jersey. Her Congressional tenure ended in 1982, when she ran for the United States Senate and lost narrowly to Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democratic millionaire whose big-spending campaign portrayed her as too eccentric. Millicent herself refused to take any political-action committee money.  After her loss, President Ronald Reagan appointed her as the first American envoy to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. She retired from that post in 1987.  Throughout her career she was an advocate for ending world hunger, and supported the food stamps program here in America. Although a Republican, she often found herself voting against her party’s agenda. She was fiscally conservative, but socially very progressive.
Millicent Fenwick and Carmine Di Pietro (Stevens class of 39')
at the technology hall dinner, June 1982.

Known for her pipe smoking and her outspoken stylish manner, she was often described as the Katherine Hepburn of politics. She was witty, fearless, elegant, and known for speaking her mind. She so frustrated Representative Wayne Hays, a Democrat from Ohio, that he once threatened to withhold her staff’s paychecks “if that woman doesn’t sit down and keep quiet,” but as the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history.  Millicent once said,  “I learned the most important thing in life is character.”  Character is definitely something that she never lacked.

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