Fenwick, Millicent Vernon Hammond

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Fenwick, Millicent Vernon Hammond

Millicent Vernon Hammond Fenwick represented New Jersey's Fifth District in Congress from 1975 to 1983. A woman who defied conventional political labels, she distinguished herself as an outspoken crusader for Human Rights.

Fenwick was born February 25, 1910, in Manhattan, to a wealthy and prominent family. Her father, Ogden H. Hammond, was a successful financier. Her mother, Mary Picton Stevens Hammond, descended from a distinguished early American family whose forebears included a colonel in the Revolutionary Army. The family was committed to public service. Fenwick's father carried out this commitment by serving two terms in the New Jersey House of Representatives and later as Calvin Coolidge's ambassador to Spain. Her mother was on a mission of mercy to establish a hospital for World War I victims in Paris when she perished in the 1915 sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania.

Fenwick's formal education was fragmentary. She attended the Foxcroft School, in Virginia, until age 15, when she left school to accompany her father to Spain. While there, she briefly attended a convent school. After she returned to the United States she took courses at Columbia University's extension school. In the late 1930s, Fenwick studied philosophy with Bertrand Russell at the New School for Social Research. In part because of her travels, she was fluent in Spanish, French, and Italian.

She fell in love with a married businessman named Hugh Fenwick, who divorced his wife to marry her in 1934. The union did not last, and in 1938, Fenwick found herself divorced with two small children and facing her ex-husband's considerable debts. The Depression had devastated his assets, and Fenwick was forced to find a job in order to pay her creditors and support her children. She worked occasionally as a model for Harper's Bazaar before joining the writing staff of Vogue magazine, where she worked for 14 years as a writer and editor. In 1948, she published Vogue's Book of Etiquette, which sold more than a million copies.

Fenwick's financial situation had improved dramatically by the time she left Vogue in 1952. She had always been interested in politics, and decided to expand her public service activities by running for the Bernardsville, New Jersey, Borough Council. She won a seat and served for six years, from 1958 to 1964. Her concern for Civil Rights was reflected in her decision not to run for reelection to the council. Instead, she accepted an appointment to the New Jersey Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She was the committee's vice chair from 1958 to 1972.

By the mid-1960s, Fenwick was also vice chair of the New Jersey Republican State Committee and was, by her own admission, longing to run for the New Jersey Legislature. However, at the time, she lacked the assertiveness to call attention to her accomplishments. Although she was anxious to be a candidate, and felt she had the qualifications and experience to win, she was reluctant to openly seek the candidacy. Instead, she hoped someone in the party would suggest that she run. She was passed over and was left to contemplate how to handle the next election. In 1969, she shed her modesty and asked for help from the Republican organization; she was elected that year, and began her term in 1970.

"We must have government, but we must watch them like ahawk."
—Millicent Fenwick

Fenwick quickly established herself as an advocate of civil rights, consumer interests, prison reform, and conservation. In the legislature, her quick wit and sharp intellect became legendary. When she proposed an Equal Rights Amendment for women, a male colleague rose and said, "I just don't like this amendment. I've always thought of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good." Fenwick replied, "That's the way I feel about men, too. I only hope you haven't been disappointed as often as I have."

In 1972, Fenwick resigned from the state assembly to become director of New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. She embraced the job wholeheartedly, visiting supermarkets to check on the accuracy of labels on canned goods and talking with ordinary consumers about their problems and concerns. She unnerved the Bureau of Professional Boards by insisting that members of the general public be included on the boards in order to ensure impartial regulation of professional conduct.

In the spring of 1974, Fenwick left her post with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs to seek the Republican nomination for the House of Representatives from the Fifth District. She carried the primary by a mere 83 votes but won the general election by a comfortable margin. She was 64 years old when she took her seat in the 94th Congress in 1975, but she quickly proved that she had all the vigor and commitment of any of her younger colleagues. She assumed assignments on the Committee on Banking, Currency, and Housing and on the Committee on Small Business, a favorite area of interest. During her tenure in the House, she regularly worked 12 to 14 hours a day and gained a reputation for diligence and commitment.

Fenwick earned respect in Congress through her support of equal opportunities, individual rights, and workplace safety. She worked tirelessly on behalf of poor people and advocated prison reform, strip-mining controls, reduction of military spending, urban renewal, campaign spending limits, Gun Control, and restrictions on Capital Punishment. Perhaps her proudest achievement was being the lead sponsor of a resolution calling for the creation of the Helsinki Commission, charged with monitoring the 1975 Helsinki human rights accords. She also served as a member of the commission.

Fenwick was a staunch feminist and strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet she was wary of a "women's agenda." "What after all would we think if men all got together and kept doing things that were supposed to be in the interest of men?" she once commented. She disliked women's organizations and was opposed to Affirmative Action quotas. Fenwick felt that the women's movement had made a serious mistake by advancing the notion that women must pursue a career, and she defended those who chose the more traditional roles of wife and mother.

In spite of her frequent support of liberal causes, Fenwick was a loyal Republican who favored calling on the state as protector and benefactor "only as a last resort." When asked what made her a Republican and not a Democrat, she said she was a Republican because deep down she did not trust government.

Fiercely independent and outspoken, Fenwick was nonetheless charming and gracious. A former aide once described her as the Katharine Hepburn of politics. Fenwick was also noted for her own unique style—she was an unabashed pipe smoker. Her unconventional and idiosyncratic personality inspired the Lacey Davenport character in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoons. Asked what she would want on her tombstone, Fenwick replied, "I suppose the hope of furthering justice is really my main thing. That and the feeling that we're all in this together … and somehow we've got to try to work out a just and a peaceful society."

Fenwick died at home in Bernardsville, New Jersey, on September 16, 1992, at the age of 82.

Further readings

Lamson, Peggy. 1979. In the Vanguard: Six American Women in Public Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Schapiro, Amy. 2003. Millicent Fenwick: Her Way. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

Stineman, Esther. 1980. American Political Women. Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.

Women in Congress, 1917–1990. 1991. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.