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Top 20 US Progressives: Elizabeth Warren

Would-be senator and Wall Street watchdog.

Many female politicians overplay or underplay their feminity in order to get on in a male-dominated world. Refreshingly, Elizabeth Warren does neither. Instead, she looks and sounds like exactly what she is - a 62-year-old grandmother from Oklahoma, with the patient tones of a teacher and an expression of perpetual mild concern.

But Warren is no prissy schoolmarm; she is a Harvard law professor and the author of six academic books. In that role, she became fascinated by the shady dealings of the financial sector and the lack of regulation of bank loans and credit cards. As she wrote in the journal Democracy in 2007: "It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street - and the mortgage won't even carry a disclosure of that fact."

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, she had the unenviable role of chairing the congressional committee overseeing the allocation of bailout funds to lenders. (When Jon Stewart asked her on The Daily Show if she had subpoena or other powers, she replied: "What I can do is, I can talk about this, and that's exactly what I am going to do.") Her next poisoned chalice was Barack Obama's offer to set up the regulatory agency she had argued for - the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. After months of work, the Republican minority indicated that it would block her appointment, and Obama promptly dropped her.

Warren has responded to this knock back by running for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts and articulating a populist but, for America, unusually left-wing opinion: that the wealthy benefit from the taxes of others and so they should pay their own. In a stump speech that quickly went viral, she told supporters: "Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Warren's path will be rocky; her opponents are trying to portray her as a Harvard elitist, and have mocked her claim that she created the "intellectual foundation" of the Occupy movement. Still, a poll by the Boston Herald put her ahead of her GOP rival, Scott Brown, by 49 per cent to 42 per cent. The gritty grandmother could soon be in the Senate.

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Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape).

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama