Barbara Lee’s Stuff
by Kara Baskin
| July 27, 2012
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
The Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation and Barbara Lee Political Office are the brainchildren of their eponymous founder, a political powerhouse and unflappable feminist committed to ensuring that women are fairly represented in politics. (Consider this: women represent 50 percent of the population — and just 17 percent of Congress.) A highly respected campaign researcher, advocate, and trustee of the Institute of Contemporary Art, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She was even one of the top national fundraisers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. But luckily Lee is down to earth, and she was happy to talk to us about her affinity for another highly visible heroine: Wonder Woman, who graces the cover of several comic books and magazines she has collected.
When did you begin collecting Wonder Women? When Ms. magazine came out in the early ’70s. My first Wonder Woman magazine cover was actually a Ms. At my son’s first birthday party, instead of giving presents to the babies, I gave favors to the mothers — the very first edition of Ms. in 1972. A number of Wonder Women were on Ms., and I have them in little cellophane folders. I have a few other covers with Rosie the Riveter. I have girl-power imagery and memorabilia. It’s a playful reminder, because my mission is to get more real-life wonder women into the political pipeline.
Who are the women to watch right now? Elizabeth Warren has what it takes to be a political superhero, and I think she’ll be a great leader in the Senate and a fighter for working people. She’s at the top of my list in Massachusetts. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, who was appointed to the Senate when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, is up for her first full term. Also, there’s an incredible woman in California, Attorney General Kamala Harris. She’s extraordinary; she could be president.
What do these women have in common, besides gender? They have a drive to make a difference. They’re motivated to help people and to improve our society rather than running to get elected. For instance, Elizabeth Warren is tough; people see her as willing to stand up to Washington insiders. She’s strong, smart, and determined.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to get into politics? Run for office in high school or college. There’s an organization called Running Start that trains girls in high school and college about the importance of their involvement. New research shows that 37 percent of women in state legislatures were class officers in high school and college.
How has the tide changed for women in politics since you launched the foundation? I started this in 1997, and back then people questioned women’s credentials on economics. Today women can be 360-degree candidates. They can use their professional and personal lives to connect with voters. Especially in these times of economic stress, women can talk about the price of food, understanding how tough it is to make ends meet; basically, voters believe them and trust them. In 1998, when we did our first set of research, people weren’t as comfortable with women on economic issues.But women are the ones balancing the checkbooks.
What makes Massachusetts fertile ground for women in politics? Well, what is shocking is that out of our 10 districts, just one is represented by a woman, Niki Tsongas — and only four women have ever been elected to Congress [here]. People think of Massachusetts as being a progressive leader. But politics is a blood sport in Massachusetts, and we have a very strong old boys’ club. I’m trying to create a new girls’ network so that women can mentor and develop the skills and the power they need to be able to infiltrate the system and have a critical mass.
Who’s your political role model? Eleanor Roosevelt: she could be president if she were alive today. She was tough, smart, and determined to make a difference, even after she was no longer first lady. She’s made a difference for everyone in this country, fighting discrimination, standing up for working people.
You also love political memorabilia. What’s your favorite piece? This is fun for me! I have two bulletin boards covered with political buttons. I have two great buttons: “It’s a man’s world unless women vote” and “Give ’em Hill!”