How Elizabeth Warren Learned to Fight

“My mother would break into the conversation and explain to whomever I was talking to, ‘But she doesn’t want to be an old-maid schoolteacher,’” Ms. Warren wrote. “Then she would turn to me, pause, and narrow her eyes. ‘Right, Betsy?’”

Ms. Warren eventually won the argument. Her debating skills earned her a full scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,“sort of the equivalent of an athletic scholarship, only this was one that actually a girl could get,” she said in the 2007 Berkeley interview. She paid for the application fees with money she made from babysitting and waitressing.

But two years later, when her old high school boyfriend, Jim Warren, popped back into her life with a marriage proposal, it was her mother’s values that moved her. She dropped out, and at 19, got married in the same Oklahoma City church her family had attended for years.

“For nineteen years I had absorbed the lesson that the best and most important thing any girl could do was ‘marry well,’” she wrote. “Somewhere deep in my heart, I believed that no man would ever ask me to marry him. When Jim popped the question, I was so shocked that it took me about a nanosecond to say yes.”

That decision would set her life on a different track — at least for a while — and would perpetuate her central struggle: The young woman who bucked social expectations by fighting to go 1,300 miles away to college was also the woman who bent to them, putting her marriage and motherhood before her career.

Her decision to marry brought happiness and two children, but also, she has written, years of challenges as her career crept along, knocked off course every time her husband had to move for his — from Texas to New Jersey and back again.

They eventually divorced in 1980. Dr. Cochran said she divorced in that era, too, as did a number of other friends from Northwest Classen who were ambitious women at a time of shifting expectations. She said Elizabeth was loyal, and she believed she would have stayed married to Jim if he had been more flexible.