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An inspiration and mentor for women in politics, Betty Taymor dies at 100

Betty Taymor with her daughter Julie Taymor, Senator Edward  Kennedy, and her daughter Laurie Taymor-Berry.
Betty Taymor with her daughter Julie Taymor, Senator Edward Kennedy, and her daughter Laurie Taymor-Berry.

Already a seasoned Democratic political operative when she first ran for state representative in 1964, Betty Taymor knew she’d face opposition from the old boys’ network, but she didn’t anticipate reluctance on the part of women voters.

“They were so strong in the belief that women should always be volunteers, but never in the main show — that they didn’t believe that women should be working outside of the home, especially in a dirty old place like downtown in the state Legislature,” she recalled in a speech years later.

To change that view, Ms. Taymor founded in 1968 what is now the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, a first-in-the-nation program that trains women to fill roles — elective and appointed — in arenas that even now are often dominated by men.

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An inspiration to women on all levels of politics in Massachusetts and far beyond, Ms. Taymor was 100 when she died Tuesday at home in the NewBridge on the Charles senior living community in Dedham. She previously lived in Cambridge and Newton.

“She really paved the way for so many of us because she had been active in national, state, and local politics. She had done it all,” said Evelyn Murphy, a former lieutenant governor who was the first woman elected to a statewide office in Massachusetts.

Ms. Taymor knew “from her own experience how important it was to get women involved, how important it was to be inclusive,” said Murphy.

That vision was realized through Ms. Taymor’s center, which began as a program at Simmons College, then moved to Boston College, and now is at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“If you did an analysis of the number of women who have come through that center, which was Betty’s creation, I think you would find an extraordinary network of women active in politics on the state, local, and national level,” Murphy said. “That’s part of her legacy.”

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That legacy extended beyond the state’s border, as did Ms. Taymor’s influence on those entering the political sphere.

“Betty Taymor was the first woman I ever saw who was powerful in American politics,” said Gloria Steinem, the writer and feminist activist, in an interview. “It was 1959 or ’60, I had just come home from two years of living in India where women were crucial to the Independence Movement, and she was the only one who gave me any hope.”

In March, Steinem was among the friends and admirers who participated in a virtual celebration of Ms. Taymor’s 100th birthday.

“I was wishing there were practical programs in colleges and universities that trained and invited women into government and politics,” Steinem said in the celebration video. “You were inventing and institutionalizing the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy to do exactly that, with scholarships that empower all women.”

In her video tribute to Ms. Taymor, US Representative Ayanna Pressley said: “We thank you for being a visionary. We thank you for being an inspiration. We thank you for being a sister.”

The impact Ms. Taymor had on Democratic politics in Massachusetts was particularly profound, said US Senator Edward Markey.

“She was an integral part of the creation of the modern progressive Democratic Party. Everything that the Democratic Party is doing in Massachusetts today was built on the shoulders of the work that Betty Taymor did,” he said.

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“I think that if there was a Mount Rushmore for Massachusetts politics,” Markey added, “this pioneering woman would be on it as a leader, inspiring future generations.”

The older of two siblings, Elizabeth Bernstein was born in 1921 in Baltimore and grew up there, the daughter of William Bernstein, a traveling salesman and Ukrainian immigrant, and Tillie Blum Bernstein, who “was a homemaker and an incredible hostess,” said Ms. Taymor’s older daughter, Laurie Taymor-Berry of Cambridge.

Ms. Taymor, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Goucher College, always cited Leon Sachs, an uncle who was an instructor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, as her early link to politics.

“Perhaps it all began when I was a child in Baltimore because I was inspired by a wonderful uncle who taught political science,” Ms. Taymor told the Globe in January 1961, just before attending the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

By then she was vice chair of the Democratic State Committee, after working on Kennedy’s US Senate campaigns in 1952 and ’58 and attending national conventions.

She also had been involved with the progressive Americans for Democratic Action organization, which launched in the late-1940s.

In 1964, she was ready for her own run for elective office, having worked on Edward M. Kennedy’s US Senate campaign two years earlier, only to find that many voters weren’t ready for a female candidate.

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“You just can’t be a political woman with a small child,” she told the Globe in 1984, reflecting on the two unsuccessful campaigns for state representative she ran while living in Newton and raising her three children. “Voters won’t think about a man, ‘Why isn’t he home with his family?’ But with a woman, both male and female voters will see her as neglecting her kids.”

Such resistance led her in 1968 to start a center to train and guide women into politics. The center moved to Boston College in 1971, with Ms. Taymor serving as director for about 20 years. In 1992, the program moved to the University of Massachusetts Boston.

In 1942, she married Dr. Melvin L. Taymor, a Harvard Medical School professor who pioneered in vitro fertilization in New England. He died in 1998.

“The two of them were really supportive of each other in ways that I don’t think I’ve seen done so beautifully in other couples,” said their daughter Julie Taymor of New York City, the Tony Award-winning director of the Broadway musical “The Lion King” and the director of films such as “Frida.”

Though Ms. Taymor fell short in her own runs for office, “she didn’t fail in politics at all. Look at how she affected other women’s lives. That was very inspiring to me,” said Julie Taymor.

“I was fulfilled to be with her on her last day,” she added, “and I sang songs that she sang to me when I was a girl, falling asleep.”

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The family will hold a private graveside service for Ms. Taymor, who in addition to her daughters, Laurie and Julie, leaves her son, Dr. Michael Taymor of Palo Alto, Calif.; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

“She was a real role model for me,” Laurie said of her mother, for whom she campaigned decades ago as part of her own lifetime of political activism. Laurie is now part of the external advisory board for the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy.

Along with Ms. Taymor’s political work, Laurie Taymor-Berry said, “she just loved life,” from hosting Passover for family and friends to dancing and dressing up as a flapper to do the Charleston.

In 2000, Ms. Taymor published a memoir, “Running Against the Wind: The Struggle of Women in Massachusetts Politics,” its title a play on the Irish blessing: “May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.”

For women in politics, she told the Globe that year, “the wind is almost never at their backs.”

As part of the 100th birthday celebration, Murphy said that Ms. Taymor “has shown us by example never to give up. And most importantly, Betty’s taught us how to help each other.”

In 1979, as Ms. Taymor directed the center she had founded and was teaching women to take their places in politics, she said simply that “women are beginning to see that it’s to their advantage to have one of their own in office.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.