Millicent Fenwick, an outspoken patrician who served four terms in the U.S. House, earned the epithet “Conscience of Congress” with her fiscal conservatism, human rights advocacy, and dedication to campaign finance reform. Fenwick’s blueblood mannerisms, which were inspiration for a popular comic strip character, belied her lifelong commitment to liberal activism on behalf of consumers, racial minorities, and women’s rights. Representative Fenwick’s humor and independence—she voted against her House GOP colleagues 48 percent of the time—made her one of the most colorful Members of Congress during the 1970s.1
Millicent Vernon Hammond was born in New York City, on February 25, 1910. Her father, Ogden Haggerty Hammond, was a wealthy financier and New Jersey state legislator; her mother, Mary Picton Stevens Hammond, died aboard the U.S.S. Lusitania in 1915 after a German U–boat torpedoed the ship.2 Millicent Hammond attended the elite Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, from 1923 until 1925. She then accompanied her father to Madrid when President Calvin Coolidge appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Spain. In 1929, she attended Columbia University and later studied with the philosopher Bertrand Russell at the New School for Social Research. In 1932, Hammond married businessman Hugh Fenwick, and they raised two children, Mary and Hugh. The Fenwicks separated six years later, however; they eventually divorced in 1945. Millicent Fenwick refused financial assistance from her family and, instead, found a job to support her children. She modeled briefly for Harper’s Bazaar and then took a job as associate editor on the staff of Condé Nast’s Vogue magazine. From 1938 to 1952, Fenwick worked on several Nast publications.3 In 1948, she wrote Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, a 600–page “treatise in proper behavior.” It sold more than a million copies. Fenwick left Vogue in 1952 and inherited a fortune when her father passed away a few years later.
Fenwick’s earliest encounter with political issues came during the 1930s with the rise of fascism in Europe. “Hitler started me in politics; when I became aware of what he was doing to people, I fired up,” she recalled.4 She joined the National Conference of Christians and Jews in an attempt to counter anti–Semitic propaganda in the United States, speaking out in public for the first time in her life. Fenwick served on the Bernardsville, New Jersey, board of education from 1938 to 1947. She supported Wendell Willkie for President in 1940 and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1946. She worked on the 1954 campaign of Republican Senate candidate Clifford Case. She also chaired the Somerset County Legal Aid Society and the Bernardsville Recreation Commission. From 1958 to 1964, she was a member of the Bernardsville borough council and served on the New Jersey committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1958 to 1972. Her first campaign for state office was in 1970 when she won a seat in the New Jersey assembly at the age of 59. Fenwick served several years in the assembly before New Jersey Governor William Cahill appointed her the state’s first director of consumer affairs. She sought to restrict auto dealers’ misleading advertising and to require funeral homes to offer advance itemization of bills.
In 1974, when her friend Peter Frelinghuysen decided to retire from the affluent congressional district in north central New Jersey which he had held for 22 years, Fenwick entered the race for his open seat. In the June GOP primary for the most solidly Republican district in New Jersey, Fenwick narrowly defeated another friend and close ideological counterpart, Assemblyman Thomas Kean, the future governor of New Jersey, polling a margin of 76 votes out of nearly 25,000 cast.6 In the general election, she campaigned on a liberal platform: civil rights, consumer rights, campaign finance, and public housing assistance.6 Fenwick handily defeated her Democratic opponent, Frederick Bohen, by a 53 percent to 43 percent margin. At the age of 64, Fenwick became one of a handful of women elected to Congress past their 60th birthdays; the press dubbed her victory a “geriatric triumph.”7 Subsequently, Fenwick won increasingly large majorities, making her one of New Jersey’s most popular officials.8
Fenwick’s wry humor and idiosyncrasies quickly made her one of the most recognizable faces in American politics. Once, during a debate in the New Jersey assembly over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a colleague told her: “I just don’t like this amendment. I’ve always thought of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good.” Fenwick retorted, “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.”9 Elegant and patrician, speaking in a raspy voice, she nevertheless connected with average people. One of her trademark habits was pipe smoking, which she adopted when her doctor warned her to curb her cigarette intake. Her refined mannerisms, coupled with her outspokenness and wit, made her both appealing and the object of public curiosity. Garry Trudeau, the creator of the socially satirical Doonesbury cartoon, drew inspiration from Fenwick for one of the strip’s most popular characters, Lacey Davenport. A longtime aide described Fenwick as “the Katharine Hepburn of politics. With her dignity and elegance, she could get away with saying things others couldn’t.”10 In Congress, she counted among her close friends the equally colorful Bella Abzug of New York; both were drawn to their shared commitment to women’s rights.11 Subsequently, supporters and detractors alike nicknamed Fenwick the “Bella Abzug of Somerset County.”
During four terms in the House, Fenwick served on several committees. She was first assigned to the Committee on Banking, Currency, and Housing and the Committee on Small Business. She also served on the Committee on the District of Columbia, the Committee on Education and Labor, and the Select Committee on Aging. Though she was fluent in three languages and more cosmopolitan than the vast majority of her colleagues, it took her years to convince House leaders to let her onto the Committee on Foreign Affairs. But she persisted in her efforts, and they relented, giving her a seat in 1979. Though committee work engaged her, Fenwick also was renowned for the amount of time she spent on the House Floor listening to debate, always from her perch in the third row back on the Republican side of the center aisle. She once explained her rationale to a woman colleague: “Get to know [your colleagues], not only in committee, but on the floor when debates are going on. It is then you can learn to judge those whose opinions you can trust, and whose opinions you must be skeptical of. Be able to evaluate them.”12
Fiscal conservatism, for Fenwick an extension of civic responsibility and her personal frugality, shaped a large portion of her House agenda. She was an early and consistent advocate for ending the so–called “marriage–tax penalty,” a higher income tax that occurred when two wage earners married and filed a joint return instead of separate returns. “Under the present law, if the wife decides to work to help support the family, her first dollar of income will be taxed at the same rate as the last dollar earned by her husband. In effect, her income will be taxed at a much higher rate,” Fenwick explained.13 During her four terms in the House, Fenwick returned more than $450,000 in unspent office allowances to the U.S. Treasury. Likewise, she returned $35,000 in congressional pay raises that made her feel uncomfortable.14
Although she was a fiscal conservative, on other matters Fenwick differed from many of her Republican colleagues. She supported women’s issues such as the ERA, federal funding for abortions, and the food stamp program. At the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Fenwick successfully fought to keep the ERA plank in the party’s platform.15 In 1980, when the GOP dropped its 40–year support for ERA, a reporter asked Fenwick to describe her feelings. “Absurd is the only word,” she scoffed.16 Fenwick, a founding member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, eventually withdrew from the group because of its increasing partisanship. “I don’t like to act only on behalf of women,” she explained. “Wherever injustice occurs, we all need to be concerned.”17
A champion of human rights, Fenwick worked vigorously to create the 1975 Helsinki Agreement on Human Rights, which investigated human rights abuses behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In particular, she wrote the bill that established the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored implementation of the Helsinki Accords. She later described that work as her proudest achievement in Congress. She also questioned American foreign aid policy to authoritarian regimes during the Cold War and was particularly disturbed by Iraqi ties to Middle East terrorist groups, Zambia’s military arms trade with the Soviets, and repressive practices and human rights violations in Mozambique.18
Fenwick extended her promise to pursue campaign finance reform into a sustained appeal to House colleagues to dedicate themselves to rehabilitating the image of Washington politics, damaged in the mid–1970s by the Watergate Crisis and congressional scandals. In 1976, she demanded the overhaul of the campaign finance system, having become alarmed at the influence of powerful donors on voting patterns. “When every candidate is asked—repeatedly—which organizations he or she had accepted money from, and how much, I think we will begin to see some changes,” Fenwick wrote. “Candidates will see that voters care…We have a sturdy governmental system—Thomas Jefferson called it ‘the strongest government on earth.’ But no system can withstand this kind of abuse forever.”19 She also spoke out against the widespread practice of Members using their franking privileges to send out campaign mailings.20 Fenwick served on the Ethics Committee during the investigation of Tongsun Park’s attempts to influence Members of Congress, the so–called “Koreagate” affair. For her independence and determination to speak her mind, the CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite soon took to calling Fenwick the “Conscience of Congress.”21 “I suppose the hope of furthering justice is really my main thing,” Fenwick said during an introspective moment. “I think about my town, my district, my state, my country, my planet, and then I think we’re all in this together and somehow we’ve got to try to work out a just and a peaceful society.”22
In 1982, the 72–year–old Fenwick chose to forgo certain re–election to her House seat to seek a U.S. Senate seat vacated when longtime Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey resigned his office in the wake of his conviction on bribery charges related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Abscam sting.23 When she was not appointed to the post to fill out the remainder of Williams’s term, Fenwick chose to run for the full term in the next Congress. She faced millionaire businessman Frank Lautenberg, who portrayed Fenwick as an “eccentric,” out of touch with New Jersey voters. Fenwick remained unruffled and true to her style, scolding her opponent: “How can you be so awfully naughty?”24 Early on, Fenwick was favored to win, but Lautenberg outspent her by a wide margin.25 Refusing to accept money from any political action committees or corporate donors because it might stymie her independence, Fenwick noted, “Nobody pressures me! And nobody has the right to… say, ‘We supported you, didn’t we? You’d better vote for this.’”26 But high unemployment and dissatisfaction with the Ronald W. Reagan administration’s economic policies worked against the GOP candidate; Lautenberg won 51 to 48 percent.27 The day after her defeat, the Washington Post took note of Fenwick’s protest about the cost of the campaign. She spent nearly $3 million to Lautenberg’s $5.5 million. “She fought the good fight,” the Post editors wrote, “and she went out the same way she came in: with class.”28
After Fenwick left office in January 1983, President Reagan appointed her to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, where she served as United States Representative with rank of ambassador from 1983 to 1985. Millicent Fenwick retired to Bernardsville, where she lived until her death on September 16, 1992.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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