This year I kicked off Women’s History Month as the luncheon speaker at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (more about that later) in Washington, DC. The Board’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, headed by Sheila Clark, decided to celebrate Women’s History Month by hosting a high noon tea. This year’s theme was “Women’s Education, Women’s Empowerment,” and it was the perfect topic to discuss the life of Millicent Fenwick.
Born in 1910, Millicent Fenwick’s life embodied the times. When her father was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Spain in 1925 her brother and stepbrother were allowed to stay in the United States to continue their education at St. Paul’s boarding school, but Millicent and her sister, Mary, were not afforded the same opportunity. The sisters were pulled out of Foxcroft Boarding School to accompany their father to Spain. Since Mary was a senior she was granted her high school diploma, but not Millicent. She was 15-years-old when her formal education ended. Despite her quest for knowledge, Millicent Hammond Fenwick never graduated from high school.
In 1938, in the wake of divorce, Fenwick sought employment. She applied for a job at an upscale New York department store. The interview went well until she was asked what college she went to. When she said she didn’t go to college, she was asked what high school she graduated from? She told them she attended high school for two years, but never graduated. That information promptly ended the interview. They wouldn’t hire anyone without a high school diploma.
Fenwick didn’t let her lack of a formal education hinder her path forward, but it took her longer to empower herself. At the age of 59, she was tired of following the “typical female pattern … I finally learned that when a man wants more he says, ‘Listen George, I want a bit of the action.’ Well, we’ve been taught, ‘You have to wait to be invited to the dance.’” Fenwick was tired of waiting. In 1967, she was hoping party leaders would select her to run for a state seat. They didn’t. Two years later, she didn’t make the same mistake. She spoke up and was named the Republican candidate for the Eight District Assembly seat. She won, launching her political career and, in essence, marking the beginning of her journey towards the nation’s Capitol.
Fenwick was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974. She was 1 of 18 women in Congress. All were in the House, none were in the Senate. Today there are 90 women serving in Congress, 17 of whom are in the Senate.
Since I was speaking at the Federal Reserve, I shared a story about Fenwick being on the “Banking, Currency, and Housing Committee,” a freshman assignment she detested and referred to as Beirut. Maybe if she visited the Federal Reserve she would have a different opinion.
I’ve lived in Washington for years, but the Federal Reserve was one building I’d never been inside. DeAnna Neill, the event coordinator, gave me a private tour of the building after the luncheon. Not only did I get to see the grand staircase, but also where Chairman Bernanke’s office and conference room were tucked away. The ornate conference room was in use, but the adjacent conference room was just as stunning. Most surprising, was the art. The Federal Reserve has its own art collection donning the walls. Who knew?