Barbara Lee

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Barbara Lee is certain that a woman will crack “the ultimate glass ceiling–the presidency.”

To make sure that can happen “in the not-too-distant future,” Lee established a foundation to help move women into elected office by providing data and “political intelligence” geared exclusively at female candidates.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation was born in 1999, one year after Lee watched in dismay as all 10 female candidates for governorships across the country lost their bids for office. Lee knew that male governors had moved on to the White House since the beginning of the Republic and was struck by the need to propel women into state elected offices.

Under a grand rotunda in the Massachusetts statehouse here, Lee last week presented the latest findings in her “how to” research aimed at accomplishing that mission. Using research from academics, bipartisan polling organizations, consultants and focus groups, Lee’s foundation has published the third volume of a series of “governor’s guidebooks” for women. The manuals are straightforward, dispassionately deconstructing the process of running for office. The instruction booklets also rely heavily on interviews with candidates, campaign managers, press secretaries, finance directors and reporters.

Lee has backed dozens of female candidates, including Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius, a Democrat whose name was mentioned briefly as a possible running-mate for presidential candidate John Kerry. Most recently, Lee became both the backer and the mentor for lawyer Andrea Cabral as she waged her successful campaign last month for Suffolk County sheriff in Boston.

“My mission is to strengthen democracy by cultivating women’s full engagement in the American democratic process,” Lee said, explaining that her goal is to put a “critical mass” of both Democratic and Republican women into influential and visible political positions.

Surrounded by a dozen Bay State female legislators from both parties, Lee said the minimum figure to attain that elusive political tipping point is 30 percent or more of any given elective entity. “If women become a third or more of the room, they start influencing the debate in a much more strategic way,” she said. “And when those women are in positions of authority, they really focus the debate.”

Role-Modeling Critical

Role-modeling is critical, Lee said, because “the people who are most likely to vote for women candidates are people who have voted for women before. So it really can work.” She noted that in the California congressional delegation, women recently surpassed men, “for the first time in history.”

Lee said her foundation’s research also showed that, regardless of party affiliation, women in elected office are more likely than their male counterparts to enact legislation to help women and families. Female elected officials also more willingly embrace matters related to social justice, she said.

But female office-holders also must go beyond what she calls the “girl issues,” kitchen-table topics such as health care and education, Lee said: “Women must be authorities on issues such as homeland security and the economy. More so even than men in some ways, they must project strength and authority–along with warmth and confidence.”

And female candidates face a gender-specific trinity of voter-judgment hurdles that Lee calls “the three H’s”–hair, hemlines and husbands. In a media-driven era where performance and style matter almost as much as platform, the final “h” can be particularly prickly, Lee said.

“If you have a husband, they think you’re neglecting him,” she said. “If you don’t have one, they wonder why. If you’re divorced, they say you drove him away. And if you’re a widow, you probably killed him.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Cabral, noting that she met Lee while both were appearing in a local production of “The Vagina Monologues,” said she used the Lee Foundation guidebooks in what turned out to be a tough race.

“For me, personally, the information about the difference between a woman running for an office and a man running for office was just invaluable,” Cabral said. “The ‘debates’ section was essential. Unlike men, who are often presumed to have the background for an office like sheriff, women have to prove their merit immediately and consistently. Debates are a way for a woman to prove her grasp of an issue.”

Divorce Endowed Philanthropy

Money from her 1996 divorce from tycoon Thomas Lee put Lee in a position to endow her own philanthropy. She will not say how much money she put up to establish the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, but says it gives away at least a million dollars each year. The money funds research, campaigns and training.

Lee’s combination of enormous wealth and political passion allows her to play the “role both of philanthropist and activist,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, where Lee also has been a donor. Information from Lee’s foundation has helped researchers track the paths the current record of nine female governors have taken to office, Walsh said, adding that this “important research” can be used to help beef up a dwindling pipeline of female candidates for local and other state offices

Far from being a dilettante who embraced women’s politics as the next trendy thing after art collection, “I think Barbara has taken the resources available to her, and rather than being self-indulgent, she has pursued things that she cares about passionately,” Walsh said. “She literally has put her money where her mouth is. We don’t have enough women like Barbara Lee out there–women who have the resources and care enough to put things together and make things happen.”

Lee, 59, traces her passion for women’s empowerment both to her grandmother–who urged her to pay attention to politics–and to her years at Simmons College in Boston. Lee credits the small, all-women’s school for nurturing her zeal for social change and activism. In return, Lee founded the Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change. Lee also was a major early supporter of Women’s eNews.

She said the “tools-of-the-trade” handbooks for female candidates have become staples of political science and women’s studies courses at colleges and universities. The books offer specific pointers on campaign preparation, cultivating connections and voter trends. There is advice on raising money and there are lessons from winners and losers. One volume is devoted entirely to conveying credibility on issues such as national security and the economy.

As future installments are published, and as the information proliferates, Lee said the manuals could help offset the unfortunate reality “that when most people close their eyes and visualize a president, they think of a man.”

In the meantime, Lee takes heart in the experience of Santa Barbara, Calif., Mayor Marty Blum. In 10 years in office, Blum often visits elementary schools, Lee said: “and when she does, little boys actually come up to her and ask her if they could grow up to be mayor, too.”

Elizabeth Mehren is New England bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.

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