On Seeing an Apparition of Millicent Fenwick

The other day we were driving through Bernardsville and I noticed a statue of a woman in a little park near the railroad station. Now we have driven down that street often enough that I should have noticed the statue before, but nope, this was my first time noticing it.  I thought I knew who it was, but I wasn’t sure. So, we had to pull the car over so that I could explore. The statue captured a woman just about mid stride, with her arms wide open, ready to embrace the world. That woman in that place could only be one person, and indeed it is Millicent Fenwick. All that was missing was the pipe! (And I later learned that if I had looked more carefully I would have seen the outline of the infamous pipe in her jacket pocket.)

If you are not from Central New Jersey, you are probably saying, “who on earth is Millicent Fenwick? She is the politician with the pipe. She is ‘outhouse Millie’ for her work to secure better working conditions (including sanitary facilities) for migrant workers. She was the Katharine Hepburn of politics.

Mrs. Fenwick was widely known for her wit, zest and idiosyncrasies like her pipe. The story goes that her doctor told her to quit smoking cigarettes and so she took up the pipe.  She has been described as tall and patrician, but down-to-earth. She was the inspiration for Garry Trudeau’s Lacey Davenport character in his “Doonesbury” cartoons.

Mrs. Fenwick came to politics as something of a second career. Before politics, she modeled briefly for Harper’s Bazaar, then worked as a writer and editor at Vogue magazine and compiled “Vogue’s Book of Etiquette” (Simon & Schuster, 1948), which sold a million copies. Her first election was to the New Jersey State Legislature at the age of 59 and then to the US Congress at 64.

Mrs. Fenwick was a lifelong Republican, but she was a woman of her own mind. Even while she was strong willed, she often charmed her ideological adversaries. Her advocacy included a wide variety of issues such as 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, and establishing a mechanism to monitor compliance with the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights.

Walter Cronkite dubbed her the “Conscience of Congress.” She was a strong voice of honesty, integrity, and ethics. When congress voted itself a raise, she thought it improper to give yourself a raise, so, she wrote checks to the U.S. Treasury to reimburse the government for those pay raises members. Not only that, she returned more than $450,000 to the U.S. Treasury in unspent office expenses. She was, not surprisingly, opposed to PAC money and she practiced what she preached. She advocated for campaign finance reform and refused to accept any PAC money.

In 1983, after she lost a race for the US Senate, President Ronald Reagan appointed Mrs. Fenwick as the first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in Rome. It was the perfect ending to a 50-year career in public service that began with the local school board and ended in a country for which she felt at home and where her brother-in-law was an Italian Count. Fenwick’s fluency in Italian and French, and passion for the issues, served her well at the FAO.

In 1987 Fenwick returned home to Bernardsville, New Jersey. It is there that she was raised, and there that she died in her sleep in 1992, at the age of 82 years old.

Those are some of the facts as I have teased them out from various web sources and from Amy Shapiro’s book, ‘Millicent Fenwick her way.’

For all of the facts, my favorite Millicent Fenwick bit of trivia is this slightly apocryphal attribution to her debating skills: In a debate over equal rights for women, Mrs. Fenwick once recalled that a male legislator said: “I just don’t like this amendment. I’ve always thought of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good.” To which she replied: “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.”

Oh, and the statue? It was first unveiled in 1995. At that time it was the first outdoor statue of a woman in New Jersey – and one of the first in the country. In 1996 a statue honoring Eleanor Roosevelt was unveiled in Riverside Park in New York City. But by and large most statues of women in the United State are of mythological figures.

Ah, Millie we miss you. We so need your wit, wisdom and integrity.