By Ken Zurski
Millicent Fenwick was a four-term Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from New Jersey between 1975 and 1983. She entered politics late in life and was known for her energy and colorful enthusiasm. “The Katharine Hepburn of politics,” a former aide called Fenwick, adding, “With her dignity and elegance, she could get away with saying things others couldn’t.”
Fenwick was regarded as a moderate and progressive within her party and was outspoken in favor of civil rights and the women’s movement. She was also an incessant pipe smoker.
In photos, Fenwick is often seen lighting up in chambers, which wasn’t unusual at the time. House committee hearings were usually filled with billows of smoke from either pipes or cigarettes.
As a woman however, both as a standing member of Congress and a smoker, it drew attention. Fenwick claimed the pipe smoking habit was the result of a physician telling her not to smoke cigarettes.
“Tall and patrician, but down-to-earth and pungent,” is how the New York Times described her.
Today, she is known for being the inspiration behind the Lacey Davenport character in Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon. Trudeau insists that Davenport was just a composite of several women and no one person in particular came to mind. But the comparison in the look and attitude could not be ignored.
Politically however, it was a different story.
In the comic, Davenport ran for Senate seat and won. In contrast, in the 1982 Senate race, Fenwick at the age of 72, was narrowly defeated by Democrat Frank Lautenberg.
Lautenberg claimed President Reagan’s unpopular polices at the midterm and his opponents age (“She would be almost 80 by the end of her first term”) were all factors that worked in his favor. Lautenberg was 58. He won the seat 51-to-48.
Fenwick, who had been ahead in the polls by 18 points, was stunned. “I had no concession speech prepared,” she said about the surprising defeat.
Fenwick died of heart failure in 1992