Fenwick, Millicent Hammond

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Fenwick, Millicent Hammond

(b. 25 February 1910 in New York City; d. 16 September 1992 in Bemardsville, New Jersey), Republican politician who won national attention for her aristocratic style and frequent disregard for party labels during terms as a New Jersey assemblywoman and U.S. congressional representative.

Fenwick was the second of three children born to Ogden Hammond and Mary Stevens. Her mother was the heir to a fortune based largely on real estate holdings in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her father was a financier who was also active in the Republican Party. In 1915 Fenwick’s mother and more than 1,000 other passengers died on the liner Lusitania when it was struck by a German torpedo. In 1925 her father was appointed ambassador to Spain and took his daughter with him, interrupting her education at the Fox-croft School in Middleburg, Virginia. The move proved to be the end of her formal schooling, but she read widely while abroad and acquired a mastery of Spanish, French, and Italian. Returning to the United States in 1929, she took courses at the Columbia University Extension School.

She then studied philosophy under Bertrand Russell at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, and they began a friendship that ultimately foundered because of Russell’s hostility toward the United States.

In 1932 she married Hugh Fenwick. They settled in suburban Bemardsville, New Jersey, and had two children, but the marriage soon collapsed and they were divorced in 1938. Simultaneously Fenwick’s inherited income faltered in the Great Depression, and she had to look for a job. She found employment at Vogue magazine, where she was soon recognized as a talented writer. Along with numerous features, she wrote Vogue’s Bool of Etiquette (1948), which sold more than 1 million copies. “Good behavior,” she wrote in her introduction, “is everybody’s business and good taste can be anyone’s goal.”

Post-World War II prosperity revived Fenwick’s inherited income and she quit Vogue in 1952. She had served on the Bemardsville Board of Education from 1938 to 1947, and she once again became active in local affairs, working as a volunteer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a prison reform group, and the county’s legal aid society. In 1958 she became the first woman elected to the Bemardsville borough council, where she helped build a municipal swimming pool without spending a cent of taxpayers’ money.

Elected on the Republican ticket to the New Jersey Assembly in 1969, she pushed for better working conditions for migrant workers and urged a yes vote for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). When an opponent said he thought women should just be “kissable, cuddly and sweet-smelling,” Fenwick demonstrated her notorious rapier wit. “That’s what I thought of men too. I hope you haven’t been disappointed as many times as I have.”

After two years as New Jersey director of consumer affairs, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974, bucking the post-Watergate Democratic tide. She let neither her age (sixty-four) nor her gender inhibit her from speaking out on many issues. She also revealed that she smoked a meerschaum pipe (as an alternative to cigarettes), an eccentricity that coalesced with her Katharine Hepbum-esque accent to inspire Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, to put her in the comic strip as the outspoken politico Lacey Davenport.

In Washington, Fenwick got to her congressional office at 6:30a.m. and frequently stayed until 9:00 p.m. She answered much of her mail in longhand and was often galvanized into causes by a personal story. She instigated a major revision of interstate commerce regulations when a black trucker described the barriers the Interstate Commerce Commission put in the way of someone trying to get started as an independent owner-driver.

She regularly disagreed with her party about issues large and small, opposing, among other things, additional aid to a collapsing Republic of Vietnam and President Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. At the end of her first year in Congress, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave her a 58 rating and a 65 the following year. She voted with the Republicans 44 percent of the time and against them 48 percent. Fenwick decried attempts to label her a liberal, insisting that her support of civil and constitutional rights, including the ERA, was a basically conservative position.

Voters responded to her independence, reelecting her by large majorities. In her subsequent years in Congress, she was especially active in the Helsinki Commission, a body she had proposed to monitor the 1975 Helsinki accords. The commission regularly publicized the Soviet Union’s failure to honor the high ideals of this landmark human rights agreement. Some believe this barrage of bad publicity helped to discredit the communist system and thus contributed to ending the cold war.

In 1982 Fenwick ran for the U.S. Senate against Frank Lautenberg, a millionaire businessman. She campaigned with breathtaking candor, telling Jewish war veterans that Nazis should be permitted to march in Skokie, Illinois, and a group of postmasters that something should be done about exorbitant government pensions. She opposed tuition tax credits, the death penalty, and school prayer, three issues that New Jersey Republicans heavily favored. The National Organization for Women refused to endorse her, saying that they preferred a Democratically controlled Senate. Fenwick lost narrowly. President Ronald Reagan then appointed her to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, on which she served until 1987. She died of cardiac arrest at the age of eighty-two in Bernardsville and was buried in St. Bernard’s Cemetery there.

Millicent Fenwick’s candor, wit, and independence added a new and valuable dimension to women’s role in politics. She insisted that women should not cringe at being thought tough or aggressive. At the same time, she put a premium on performance, not power. “Influence [should] come out of the work you’ve done and the things you’ve stood for,” she said in a speech at an International Women’s Year meeting in Trenton, New Jersey.

Fenwick’s papers are in Rutgers University’s Alexander Library in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her speeches from her terms as New Jersey representative are in the Congressional Record (1975–1983). Her book Speaking Up (1982) was a political commentary drawn from her speeches, op-ed articles, and congressional newsletter. She also wrote a brief reminiscence of her magazine career that appeared in Vogue (Apr. 1992). Peggy Lamson, In the Vanguard: Six American Women in Public Life (1979), includes a lengthy chapter on Fenwick. Other good profiles are Vera Glaser, “Millicent Fenwick: At Home in the House,” Saturday Evening Post (19 Sept. 1975); “Millicent Fenwick,” Current Biography (1977); “The Very Independent Mrs. Fenwick,” United Mainline Magazine (Jan. 1982), and William E. Geist, “Millicent Fenwick: Marching to Her Own Drum,” New York Times Magazine (27 June 1982). A brief treatment is in Joan N. Burstyn, ed., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women (1997). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 17 Sept. 1992).

Thomas Fleming

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