Barbara Lee has been dubbed the Paul Revere of women, Massachusetts’ noisy heralder of women’s long-anticipated arrival in politics.
Twenty years ago, Lee formed her eponymous Barbara Lee Family Foundation to channel her formidable energy and sizable resources into advancing women’s equality in American politics (and contemporary art). Since then, her foundation has studied every female candidate’s campaign for governor, produced guides offering practical tips to women candidates, and hired pollsters and analysts to offer real-time feedback on how women candidates are doing.
Now, that they’re taking off, she’s basking in women’s electoral successes and leading celebrations of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
“What the suffragists taught us is, never let the status quo as it is limit your imagination for the future,” Lee says. “The suffragists did this. We can do this, too.”
Fittingly, her office in a yellow Harvard Square triple-decker is a tribute to female resistors and persisters — from a “hard times token” dating to the 1838 antislavery movement to a framed photo of congresswomen charging up the Senate steps in 1991 to demand a postponement of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings over sexual harassment allegations by Anita Hill.
A 1943 Wonder Woman comic, with a cover showing the amazon running for president, is framed on Lee’s wall.
A closet doorknob is draped with lanyards for badges from the many events she has organized. Lee, a philanthropist who substantially boosted the development and women’s collection of the Institute of Contemporary Art, turned her attention to women’s empowerment in 1998, working with the “White House Project” to gin up interest in electing a female president.
Framed on a hallway wall in the foundation is the paper ballot listing 20 female candidates the project distributed through magazines like Essence, Glamour, and Latina.
It garnered 100,000 votes from readers, she says, but at the same time, in the real world, female candidates in real-world elections were losing ground.
“That is when I decided that an aspiration ballot was not going to change the culture the way I wanted to,” Lee says. So she launched the foundation and began hiring academics and pollsters to study the 1998 elections. Since then, the foundation has studied every woman’s campaign for governor, Democrat or Republican, provided real-time polling on voters’ views and postelection analysis, and dispensed real-world advice to women running for office.
Along the way, Lee herself became a recognizable figure in politics. The third floor conference room of the foundation’s offices feature a copy of the April 2015 Boston Magazine “power issue” featuring Lee on the cover with the headline: “I Run this Town.” A table is set with china, inscribed with the suffragist logo, “Votes for Women,” in blue script. Another table is arrayed with framed pictures of Shirley Chisholm, the first African–American congresswoman, and Geraldine Ferraro , the first female candidate for vice president on a major party ticket, along with a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt and an analog clock.
The mantle is lined with commemorative Ms. magazines — including the 1971 preview issue, which holds personal significance for Lee: At her son’s first birthday party, she gave copies of it to the other mothers in lieu of party favors.
On the floor of her compact office, Lee keeps a minitrampoline. In between meetings, she hops onto it in her sneakers, bouncing up and down to blow off steam.
“I feel like two minutes on here just clears my energy,” she says.
Separate from her foundation, which is nonpartisan and research-based, Lee has championed numerous women’s candidacies. She was the first to ask Ayanna Pressley to run for office (when Pressley was an aide to US Senator John Kerry). And after Pressley’s years on the Boston City Council, Lee was one of her first early backers for an insurgent challenge to incumbent Congressman Mike Capuano.
A painting of Pressley’s campaign sign — with the logo “Change Can’t Wait” — graces a table in Lee’s office, along with boxed collectibles of Barbies running for president. (The First All-Female Ticket features two Barbies, one white, one black.)
On her desk lies a wooden ruler with this message: “It’s a Man’s World . . . Unless Women Vote.” Beside it is a campaign pin with the same inscription and an all-caps stamp assuring: “YOU CAN ACHIEVE IT.”
Lee’s office features bulletin boards thick with buttons from campaigns both actual (Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress) and aspirational (“Run Condi, Run”). Her burgeoning collection of suffragist memorabilia includes a printed Back Bay parade route for a Boston suffrage rally and an 1889 column in The Woman’s Journal by Alice Stone Blackwell, the daughter of Massachusetts suffragist Lucy Stone.
Also tucked inside Lee’s office is her high school history book, which she dug up after wondering why she hadn’t been taught more about women’s history. Now, the book flutters with Post-It Notes denoting women’s few inclusions and her bafflement at some of the choices: Cleopatra. Joan of Arc. Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Isabella of Spain.
“This is American history,” she says. “Half the people in the book weren’t even American.”
“When people learn about their history, it can inspire them to make history,” she says.