Barbara Lee: The Paul Revere of Women

The part-time Vineyarder, inspired by a suffragist grandmother, helps get women into office.

Activist, and part-time Vineyard resident, Barbara Lee, speaks at a Washington Post event. – Courtesy Barbara Lee Foundation

It was the third Saturday in January. I made my way to Five Corners to join a rally marking the third anniversary of the Women’s March. It was frigidly cold; there were about 20 marchers there, holding signs and waving at passersby. Right there in the middle of this small crowd was political activist Barbara Lee. I’d been trying for months to get in touch with her for an interview for this magazine, and here she was. Lee splits her time between the Vineyard and Cambridge, and is well known for heading an influential non-profit that works toward twin goals — seeing more female representation in American politics, and seeing more women artists represented in American galleries and museums. 

In 1998, when at the age of 52 (post-divorce, with two grown kids), Lee launched the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, there were only four sitting female governors in the country; only 18 had been elected governor in U.S. history. Rather than supporting candidates financially, the foundation, guided by the core belief that “women’s voices strengthen democracy and enrich our culture,” began looking into some of the unique obstacles women face when running for this office — such as blue-collar male voters who preferred males as governors — and which strategies could be used to overcome them. The foundation published “Keys to the Governor’s Office,” which outlined their findings. Since then, Lee, who has been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Boston,” has helped elect some 26 female governors, as well as female senators, among others — a total of 177 women taking political office in 33 states. The foundation’s research has expanded to cover all political offices from local to national, with a long list of titles (such as “Cracking the Code: Positioning Women to Win”) that women can turn to for resources, encouragement, and guidance in seeking office. 

Lee has used her clout and influence in the arts to push museums and galleries to promote the works of contemporary female artists, also traditionally under-represented. Lee has been most closely involved with the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which opened a new 65,000 square-foot home on Boston’s waterfront in 2006 that includes The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. 

Lee’s busy, packed days at her Cambridge office include leading a staff of 11, directing the foundation’s research, writing editorials about gender in politics, and traveling across the country to speak at conferences or attend events. 

Happy to finally have connected with Lee myself, we exchanged emails this spring and discussed women in office, and what’s next. 

 

I think many of us, women in particular, watched in disappointment as the Democratic candidate roster for the 2020 presidential election went from six qualified women to two white, older males. What factors played a role in this?

For the past twenty years, my foundation has been studying the obstacles and opportunities women face when they run for office. Women candidates have traditionally faced barriers when running for executive office because people haven’t seen many women in those roles. Twenty states have never had a woman governor, and we’ve yet to see a woman commander in chief, so it was not surprising that all of the women candidates in the 2020 race had their qualifications and electability called into question. Gender bias is still prevalent — both conscious and unconscious.

Since the first broadcast presidential debate in 1948, only five women have ever stood on a presidential debate stage. This cycle, we saw six women, including two women of color, all at the same time — that is major progress! With multiple women candidates, each woman could be seen as an individual, rather than as a token and the sole representative of her gender.

It is exciting for me that the current generation will never remember a time when a presidential primary was not diverse. I love the quote “You can’t be what you can’t see.” That’s why role models are so important, and why I chose this as my mission.

 

You started the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in 1998. What inspired you to start the foundation? What are some of the major changes you’ve witnessed since then?

 Back in the mid-1990s, I decided to dedicate my life to empowering women. I first looked at areas like women’s health and women’s micro-enterprise, and I realized the best way to support those causes was to elect more women. I believed then — as I do now — that electing women is the single most powerful way to transform our society, create better public policy, and provide powerful role models for women and girls.

My very first project was a public awareness campaign, circulating mock presidential ballots featuring 20 prominent women who could be president. I thought that seeing a woman in the White House would inspire and empower many more women to step up and become leaders. When I told people that I wanted to elect a woman president, they said “Oh, that’s nice, Barbara.” At the time it was a radical idea.

At the same time we were distributing the mock presidential ballots, ten accomplished women ran for governor across the country. The two incumbents won — the eight others lost. That was an “a-ha” moment for me. I realized then that women face more challenges when they run for governor, and that if we wanted to see a woman in the White House, we first had to build a pipeline of qualified women to run for office at the highest levels. That’s when I started the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, and for the last two decades, we have been working to literally change the face of politics.

Last year, I ran into someone at a political event who knew me when I first started this work, and he playfully called me “The Paul Revere of women.” He joked that for years I had been saying “The women are coming!” And now, the women are here, and they’re here to stay. I believe that going forward, we will never see a presidential primary again without multiple women candidates on the debate stage. 

 

Donald Trump’s election was clearly a catalyst for more women running for public office across the country as well as more women participating in the political arena. Is this a blip, like the Anita Hill post-bump in the early ‘90s, or a turning point? 

My grandmother, Minnie, told me about what it was like growing up before women had the right to vote, and how she went to the polls for the very first time in 1920. She never missed an election in her 96 years. When I was at the first Boston Women’s March in 2017, I looked around Boston Common and realized that this is how my grandmother must have felt watching the suffragists march up Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1915. I could feel the electricity of the moment. Our research shows women are more politically engaged than ever. I believe in my heart this is more than a moment — it is a movement. 

 

Your foundation’s political research has shown clearly that women candidates face some unique obstacles. What are a few of these challenges and how can they be overcome?

 One trend that has been consistent over time is that men are assumed to be qualified. They can simply release their resume, whereas women must prove they are qualified, and prove they can get results. That’s why during the 2020 cycle, we saw women candidates’ “electability” questioned more than their male opponents.

This past fall, my foundation released our largest research project ever — we comprehensively examined what it takes for women of diverse backgrounds to prove to voters they are ready to serve in executive office. We found that the idea that men are more electable than women is a tired myth, and that’s good news for the country! 

 

Your organization has famously suggested that, unlike men, women need to be recruited and encouraged to run for political office. Can you mention one or two politicians you’ve personally encouraged to run who went on to get elected? 

 I always say women don’t run for office to seek fame and fortune, they run to solve problems. Over the past couple of years, women have been stepping up to run in record numbers.

I’ve come to think of myself as a talent scout. I’ve always been on the lookout for women who could be great leaders. And I’m proud that we now call my good friend Ayanna “Congresswoman Pressley.” I first met Ayanna many years ago, when she was working in constituent services for Senator John Kerry. I recognized her talent immediately, and she later told me that I was the first person ever to encourage her to run for office. She has since told me she was so shocked, she went right home after the event and called her mother. We are so lucky to have her powerful voice in Congress today. Ayanna has quickly become a national leader in the House of Representatives, especially when fighting for underserved populations.

It also makes me smile to know that our Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey also credits me as the first person who ever encouraged her to run for office. I first met Maura at a Democratic Unity event in Washington, D.C. back in 2004, and knew right away she was a star. She later reminded me that not only had I asked her to run for office that day, but I also introduced her to then-Senator Hillary Clinton. I’m proud that Attorney General Healey is one of the leading attorneys general across the country, and a powerful advocate for the people of Massachusetts.

 

Elizabeth Warren is Massachusetts’ first female senator and we’ve never had an elected female governor. How are we doing in Massachusetts in terms of women in political posts overall and in comparison with other states? 

 I always say that for a state with such a progressive reputation, Massachusetts is the original old boys’ club. Ever since the American Revolution, politics has been dominated by straight white men. Although we still have work to do, we’ve made impressive progress over the past few years. It is now the norm for women here to run for office at all levels. Electing Elizabeth Warren to the Senate was a big first for Massachusetts. 

When I first started doing this work, there was only one woman on the Boston City Council and there were no women in our congressional delegation. I will always remember being at Congresswoman Niki Tsongas’s victory party when she was first elected in 2007, and there hadn’t been a woman in our congressional delegation in 25 years.

Now, the Boston City Council is now the most diverse it has ever been, led by women of color. And now, 4 out of the 11 members of our congressional delegation are women, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Katherine Clark, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and Congresswoman Lori Trahan. That’s a big deal, but we still have a lot of work to achieve parity in Massachusetts. By the way, a woman has never represented the Cape and the Islands on Capitol Hill. I’d love to see the Vineyard send a woman to Congress sometime soon!

 

How did you get involved with the exhibit on suffrage at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and what do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibit?

 

I always say, it is important to learn about history in order to make history. I’ve been talking to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum for years about honoring the amazing women of the Blackwell family (see article that follows). Henry Blackwell, the first member of the family, came to Chilmark, anchoring a small boat with his friend off Squibnocket in 1864. Although he only intended to stop and mail a letter to his wife, Lucy Stone, he fell in love with the town. In the following years, more than 60 members of the Blackwell family ended up living summer or year-round on the stretch of land between Squibnocket Pond and Menemsha Pond. 

How remarkable that a family with some of the most trailblazing women in American history lived and spent time right here on Martha’s Vineyard. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America, along with her sister, Emily, the third woman doctor, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. It was the first hospital run by women and the first dedicated to serving women and children in the United States. 

One of their sisters-in-law, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, was the first woman ordained minister in America. And another sister-in-law, Lucy Stone, became Massachusetts’ most famous activist on behalf of women’s suffrage. 

Lucy’s daughter Alice Stone Blackwell worked with her mother, and eventually took over as editor of The Women’s Journal, the Boston-based women’s rights newspaper her mother had founded in 1870. And Antoinette’s daughter, Florence Blackwell Mayhew, founded the Chilmark Public Library.

Unfortunately, most people don’t even know the names Lucy Stone and Alice Stone Blackwell because the suffrage movement fractured. For siding with the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass in support of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote a half century before women, Lucy Stone was largely written out of the history books by her former colleagues, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

 

It’s 100 years since passage of the 19th amendment granting white women the right to vote. History books portray suffrage as some women organizing a few marches, politely asking for the vote and without much drama, “Votes for Women” was achieved. I just finished reading three eye-opening new books on women’s suffrage through our Martha’s Vineyard Feminist book group, and as usual I learned I was taught very little in history about the massive political work, the protests, and the jailings by the hundreds, as well as the astute organizational lobbying it took by women to get suffrage passed. What do you think politicians, leaders and activists can learn from the suffrage movement?

I totally relate to your experience. So many of us weren’t taught about the suffrage movement in school. A number of years ago, I was able to find a copy of my high school American history book on the internet. I had wondered why my own knowledge of women’s history had been so limited. So it didn’t surprise me when I found that women’s names were mentioned only 11 times in a 280-page book, and only one page was devoted to the history of women’s suffrage. No names of individual suffragists were even mentioned in the book. 

There are so many important lessons we can take from the suffrage movement. For daring to demand equal rights for women, generations of suffragists endured taunts, threats, and even imprisonment. Their courage and resilience cleared the way for the six women who were on the presidential debate stage this election cycle.

People forget that it took more than 70 years to pass the 19th amendment. Coretta Scott King said “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” So, we need to hold fast to our vision and keep working for the equality and well-being of all people, especially at this moment in time. 

 

 

You have said the suffrage centennial is a call to action. What would you like to see now and in the next few years?

I always say monumental change often happens in microsteps. We are living at a pivotal moment — a time like the start of the 20th century and the 1960s — when civil rights and decades of hard-fought progress are at risk.

Voter suppression has not gone away; the tactics have just evolved. Even as we make historic gains, women, people of color, and our interests are still vastly underrepresented in political leadership. Of course, it is easy to get discouraged, but we must keep up our efforts. Even during this time of social distancing, we must make our voices heard. 

 

The foundation has supported Higher Heights, a group that promotes the leadership of Black women. Given this has been one of your priorities, what’s been going through your mind in the weeks after the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd?
Like so many people across our country, I’ve felt a whole range of emotions in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It has made me and my team take a hard look at ourselves, and at our work.
Crises always hit the most vulnerable people in our society the hardest. Having more diverse perspectives catches more blind spots, ensuring the burden doesn’t fall disproportionately on people of color, especially women of color. That is why it is so important to me to help elect black women, LGBTQ women, and women of color. That’s why the work Higher Heights is doing is so critical, and it’s important to support their organization, and other organizations that are working to support social justice.
It has been so powerful for me to see women like Washington D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser, San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed, Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot take center stage in the national conversation around racial justice in our country. They are each bold, brave, and they bring the whole of their lived experience to inform their leadership.
What has been inspiring to me over the past few weeks are all the young people who are leading this movement. The activism is coming directly from the community. The energy around racial justice in the United States during this moment takes me back to the power of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and also reminds me of the way my grandmother spoke about the women’s suffrage movement. These past weeks young people have inspired the country, and I’m certain this movement will produce a new generation in politics, led by women and people of color. 

 

There have been articles about countries led by women during the coronavirus pandemic (including Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, etc.) with better outcomes and less financial devastation. Can we expect better, more caring (that is, less egotistical) leadership from female leaders in general?

Women executive leaders around the world have made headlines for their effective leadership during COVID-19 and it is important we recognize that here in the United States, women in executive office have been stepping up in big ways — proving why we need more women of all backgrounds in governors’ mansions and city halls.
My foundation just published new research this summer, which looks at how voters respond to women leaders handling a crisis. Voters want women leaders who take a 360-degree view of a crisis. People want women executive leaders who listen to the community, who have a plan, who are confident and decisive, and who are effective team captains.
We see all those qualities in the women mayors I mentioned above, as well as women governors like Oregon Governor Kate Brown, New Mexico Governor Michele Lujan Grisham, Maine Governor Janet Mills, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Over the past six months, women mayors and women governors across the country have risen to the occasion, and they will continue to do so.

 

Tell me about your interest in art and women artists. 

I’ve often said art is my passion and politics is my mission. I remember walking through the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art as a small child, my father holding my hand, and then later as a teenager, going with him to visit the 50th anniversary recreation of the famous 1913 Armory Show. Those experiences taught me first-hand the power of art, and people’s attachment to contemporary art, the art of our time.

Many years ago, the activist art group Guerrilla Girls opened my eyes to how few works of art by women were on view in museums. Just like in politics, women have always been underrepresented in galleries and museums. The art world has traditionally been another old boys’ club. 

 

Do you ever think of spending your days relaxing and reading on Lucy Vincent Beach? You maintain a very active schedule. What keeps you going?

 

There’s a saying that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Advancing women’s representation has energized me over all these years. This moment is full of possibilities for women, so in many ways I’ve never been busier! I do spend a lot of time reading, relaxing, and daydreaming on the Vineyard. And I love walking the dirt roads and alongside the stone walls in my neighborhood, on the lookout for my favorite birds, as well as searching for beach glass with my long-term beau, David Damroth. 

 

 What’s a little of your Vineyard history? How do you divide your time between your foundation and home in Cambridge and the Island?

 I first came to Martha’s Vineyard for a weekend in September of 1970, when I was pregnant with my first son. We arrived on a rainy, rainy night, and I will always remember riding up-Island on North Road in the driving wind and rain with an amazing canopy of tree branches whipping over the road. The next day, we woke up to a clear, quiet, sunny morning and a glimpse of Menemsha Pond, and fell in love instantly. We came back every summer, and in 1983 bought a little house up-Island. I’m able to split my time between Cambridge and the Vineyard year-round. For me, the Island is truly a haven where I am grateful to relax, recharge, and spend quiet time with Dave and my family.

 

Sidebar

Lee’s foundation also partners with other political organizations helping to elect women, including VoteRunLead, a national organization that helps train women running for office for the first time; and Higher Heights Leadership Fund, an organization amplifying voices and leadership of black women.

During the 2016 and 2018 elections, and now for 2020, people can read a weekly newsletter filled with reporting and analysis on gender dynamics in races across the country, including the presidency, thanks to the Barbara Lee Foundation working with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. For the 2020 elections, the foundation is partnering with the Women + Politics Institute at American University with the newsletter called Gender on the Ballot.

Read more about the foundation and view any of research and publications at Barbaraleefoundation.org. To sign up for the 2020 Gender on the Ballot newsletter, check the website or visit GenderontheBallot.org