The 50 Most Powerful Women in Boston

In more ways and fields than ever, these women are stepping up and taking the reins in Boston: Meet the players who pull the strings in Boston.

Edited by Alexandra Hall

Photograph by Adam Detour

Photograph by Adam Detour


Carolyn Lynch knows how to play her cards right at a man’s game. A legend in philanthropy circles, she also just happens to have won three national bridge tournaments, despite often being one of  the few women in the competition. Bain & Company chairman Orit Gadiesh has, as the only woman in a room full of execs, been known to drop four-letter words to break the ice. Communications honcho Micho Spring has taken dives—of the literal scuba variety—simply because, on an otherwise all-male team of business partners, “I’d be damned if I was going to be left behind.”

Shrinking violets, these ladies are not. So as we pause to consider what power means to women in Boston these days, let’s dispense with all those stale You’ve come a long way, baby patronizations. Ditto But you’ve still got a long way to go.

Because somewhere in between those two clichés, women and power in Boston have formed a far more complex relation­ship. For starters, the term “powerful women” is no longer an oxymoron (nor is it—and hallelujah, already—­confined anymore to E! specials about Madonna). You might even say there’s no longer a need for the term—the idea of women in power is now so commonplace, we barely even think about it. In Boston, women are regularly flexing their muscles in the city’s traditional power buckets. We’re talking about politics (hello, Therese Murray, Martha Coakley, and Vicki Kennedy, not to mention the columnist who unflinchingly covers their field, Joan Vennochi); law (give it up for Cheryl Cronin, one of President Obama’s trusted legal consultants, and attorney Regina Pisa, who guides many of our biggest companies through their mergers and acquisitions); and business (for starters, TJX savior Carol Meyrowitz, and Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University, who also brought us the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center—on time and on budget). Nowadays, a powerful woman is simply a given.

And yet, look a little closer at the methods by which Boston women have acquired power. Some of our biggest female players (paging Barbara Lynch, who’s proven that sometimes the best place for a woman really is in the kitchen—but running an empire of restaurants) have positioned themselves to control wide swaths of our city. (Snaps, please, for Susan Hockfield and Drew Gilpin Faust, presidents of MIT and Harvard, respectively, for winning posts unimaginable for women even a decade ago—and to Larry Summers half a decade ago.) These ladies pull the formal civic strings, and shape how people think and live everywhere around us. They’ve seized power in terrifically diverse ways…which forced us, as we created this list of Boston’s 50 Most Powerful Women, to reconsider the very notion of power itself.

Mary Bonauto
Director, Gay & Lesbian Adocates & Defenders
Power demo:  Masterminding the landmark Goodridge v. Department of Public Health lawsuit that led to legal same-sex marriage.

Eve Bridburg
Founder, Grub Street
Power demo:  Guiding more than 10,000 writers over the literary center’s 14 years, including everyone from untried hopefuls to award-winning novelists such as Iris Gomez and Randy Susan Meyers.

Andrea Cabral
Sheriff, Suffolk County
Power demo:  It’s old news now that Cabral is the first African-American woman sheriff in state history. She was appointed all the way back in 2002 and has since been elected twice. Over the years Cabral has consolidated her power…and has not been shy about using it outside of her day job running a sheriff’s office with 1,100 or so employees. Last year was especially big for Cabral, who emerged as a strong voice for the reelection of Governor Deval Patrick; was featured as a guest speaker at the conference of the National Organization for Women; and even stood up (at least for a little while) to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “staggering lack of communication and respect” by threatening to kick the notorious agency’s detainees out of her jail.  — John Wolfson

Tracy Campion
Founder, Campion and Company
Power demo:  Racking up more than $550 million in high-end real estate sales to Boston’s rich and powerful since 2007.

Sonia Chang-Díaz
State Senator, Second Suffolk District
Power demo:  Restoring public faith in her Senate seat after her predecessor was convicted of taking thousands in bribes. Chang-Díaz personally addressed more than 8,000 issues from her constituents, sponsored more than a dozen different bills, and won her top legislative priority — the landmark CORI reform that aims to put the brakes  on job discrimination against former criminals — all during her first two years in office.

Robin Chase
Cofounder Zipcar And GoLoco
Power demo:  Revolutionizing how we navigate urban environments, with both Zipcar and her new online ride-sharing company, GoLoco.

Martha Coakley
Massachusetts Attorney General
Power demo:  Keeping auto insurance low; getting one of the first big settlements from Goldman Sachs; regulating utility costs under Cape Wind. (Okay, so she’s a really bad campaigner.)

Cheryl Cronin
Partner, Cronin & Leonard
Power demo:  Being the go-to legal mind on all matters political and strategic for the highest and mightiest, from Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign to Martha Coakley.

Catherine D’Amato
President/CEO, Greater Boston Food Bank
Power demo:  Lording over the opening of a new 117,000-square-foot facility that feeds close to 545,000 people a year and doles out more than 34 million pounds of food annually.

Anne Finucane
Global Strategy and Marketing Officer/Northeast President, Bank of America
Power demo:  If it seems like Bank of America is taking over the world, it’s Anne Finucane’s job to make it feel like a friendly takeover, with easy access to ATMs and online checking for all. She may have gotten her start at Hill Holliday, but these days she does lots more than just plan advertising strategy — she also oversees B of A’s government affairs and public policy work. She rode herd on the bank’s efforts to pay back its TARP money and is a key contact for Congress and the Obama administration. And just to make sure we locals didn’t forget about her, she was front and center last summer when Ken Burns released his baseball documentary The Tenth Inning, positioning B of A as its primary sponsor. Her husband, Mike Barnicle, had a starring role in the doc, by the way. Did we mention Finucane is powerful?  — Jason Schwartz

Devra First
Restaurant Critic, Boston Globe
Power demo:  Steering legions of diners toward (or away) from the city’s eateries, oftentimes determining a business’s success or failure. Her identity remains so secret we couldn’t even illustrate her for you.

Carol Fulp
Senior VP of Brand Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility, John Hancock Financial
Power demo:  Presiding over an $11 million corporate-giving program. (And getting nominated to represent the U.S. at the UN.)

Orit Gadiesh
Chairman, Bain & Company
Power demo:  Rocking the World Economic Forum as a regular speaker.

Drew Gilpin Faust
President, Harvard University
Power demo:  Somehow making Harvard even more global, building partnerships in Asia and recently creating a teacher-education initiative in Soweto, Africa.

Anne Hawley
Director, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Power demo:  Hawley began at the Gardner more than 20 years ago with a bang — just before thieves walked off with $500 million in fine art. She’ll kick off 2012 with a different sort of excitement: the unveiling of the museum’s Renzo Piano–designed wing, a $114 million modern wonder featuring a 300-seat performance hall, a 2,000-square-foot special exhibition gallery, even an adjoining greenhouse area. The project tested Hawley’s considerable skills, given that the founder of the museum had written it into her will that the collections must never be modified. Hawley not only needed to convince the Supreme Judicial Court that the expansion wouldn’t change the original building or its contents — she also had to overcome the objections of disapproving neighborhood preservationists.  — Brittany Jasnoff

Regina Herzlinger
Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
Power demo:  Acting as the intellectual parent of our state’s universal healthcare plan.

Susan Hockfield
President, MIT
Power demo:  Captaining a $300 million energy-research and -education push to develop new wind turbines, solar cells, and strategies for better utilizing our existing power sources.

Barbara Hostetter
Power demo:  Cofounding the Barr Foundation, the state’s largest private charity, which has given more than $418 million to environmental, educational, and arts and culture causes.

Swanee Hunt
Philanthropist; Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government
Power demo:  Creating the Hunt Alternatives Fund — it’s delivered $130 million to promote female political leadership and arts for disadvantaged kids.

Abigail Johnson
Vice Chairman/Director FMR President Fidelity Personal, Workplace and Institutional Services
Power demo:  Being poised to succeed Ned Johnson, her 80-year-old father, as the CEO of one of the nation’s biggest financial services companies. She is routinely listed among the richest women in America.

Carol Johnson
Superintendent Boston Public Schools
Power demo:  It’s too bad that every time Carol Johnson’s name turns up in the paper these days, somebody seems to be criticizing her. She’s been forced to institute budget-trimming initiatives such as closing or merging more than a dozen schools, and she’s set about firing or reassigning underperforming teachers — hardly a recipe for positive PR. Still, Johnson has been taking care of business since arriving from Memphis in 2007: The city’s test scores are up, the dropout rate is at its lowest point in two decades, and BPS was named one of the 20 most-improved school systems in the world in a 2010 McKinsey & Co. report.  — Tanya Pai

Julie Kahn
Vice President/New England Market Manager, Entercom
Power demo:  Calling the shots at some of New England’s top-rated radio stations, such as WEEI, WRKO, and WAAF.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Chair/Director, Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative
Power demo:  Spreading innovative leadership strategies; winning the Association of Leadership Professionals’ International Leadership Award.

Karen Kaplan
President, Hill Holiday
Power demo:  Growing the ad agency’s annual billings to more than $1 billion, with clients ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to Bank of America and Verizon Wireless.

Victoria Reggie Kennedy
Former Partner, Keck, Mahin & Cate
She’s known to most as the late Ted Kennedy’s wife. But Vicki Kennedy has quickly become a major force in local and national political circles. After the senator’s passing, it’s said that her support helped install longtime aide Paul Kirk to keep the seat warm until — much to her chagrin — it was captured by Scott Brown. And over the last year, she’s become a sought-after endorsement, stumping for several Democratic candidates in November and working the social circuit with gusto. She’s popped up at benefits and openings galore, and has delivered multiple high school and college commencement addresses — all in addition to one of her biggest charitable endeavors, fundraising for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Though the former lawyer found herself on many Dems’ shortlists of potential challengers to Brown in 2012, she’s wound up brushing off speculation regarding a future candidacy — for now, anyway.  — Donna Garlough

Myra Kraft
Philanthropist; President New England Patriots Charitable Foundation
Power demo:  Injecting more than $100 million into dozens of causes — from tiny grassroots campaigns to major universities — through organizations like the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation and the Robert K. and Myra H. Kraft Foundation, both of which she coestablished.

Saundra Lane
Art Collector; Honorary Trustee, MFA
Power demo:  Making the careers of starving artists simply by adding their works to her esteemed collection.

Gloria Larson
President, Bentley University; Former Chair, Massachusetts Convention Center Authority
Power demo:  Driving the massive $800 million Boston Convention and Exhibition Center project.

Barbara Lee
Philanthropist; Fouder Barbara Lee Family Foundation
Power demo:  Conceiving and funding  contemporary-art and women-in-politics programs — and helping to elect just about every sitting woman Democratic senator and governor nationwide.

Janice Loux
President, Unite Here! Local 26
Power demo: They call her a bully, but a compassionate one. And on both counts, with good reason: As the protector of 5,000-plus Boston hospitality workers, Loux has picked fights with — and won concessions from — big players like Hyatt (getting new positions offered to the 98 housekeepers replaced by lower-paid subcontractors) and the Liberty Hotel (the city postponed its approval of the hotel because it hadn’t signed with the union). Under Loux, Local 26 has doubled its membership and become one of New England’s largest private-sector unions, and the percentage of Boston’s unionized hotels has shot up from 40 to 60. Loux comes by her trade naturally — her mother was the hotel waitress who took on the all-male bartenders union and got it to admit women.  — Alexandra Hall

Barbara Lynch
Chef & Restaurateur
Power demo:  Changing the very fabric of every neighborhood where she opens a new restaurant.

Carolyn Lynch
Philanthropist, President/Chairman, The Lynch Foundation
Power demo:  Heading up (after cofounding) the Lynch Foundation, which has given upward of $50 million to more than 200 organizations.

Mary Anne Marsh
Principal, The Dewey Square Group; Political Analyst, Fox News
Power demo:  Strategizing for both Fortune 500 companies and political players like John Kerry and Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.

Linda Mason
Chairwoman/Cofounder Bright Horizons; Cofounder Horizons for Homeless Children
Power demo:  Providing childcare services to more than 80,000 families in 703 facilities across the state.

Jill Medvedow
Director, The Institute of Contemporary Art
Power demo:  Building the ICA’s $51 million home on Fan Pier, replacing (and tripling the size of) its former quarters in a Back Bay Victorian.

Carol Meyrowitz
President/CEO, TJX Companies
Power demo:  Steering the off-price retail giant safely through credit-card disasters and economic plunges alike.

Cathy Minehan
Managing Director, Arlington Advisory Partners; Chair, MGH Board of Trustees
Power demo:  Driving MGH’s Campaign for the Third Century of MGH Medicine — the largest campaign in the hospital’s history…and, you know, her 13 years as head of Boston’s Federal Reserve Bank.

Therese Murray
Chairman, Global Corporate Practice; President, Massachusetts Senate
Power demo:  Authoring the 2008 bill that stopped doctors from getting paid by Big Pharma to push drugs onto patients.

Beth Myers
Principal, The Shawmut Group
Power demo:  Acting as Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial chief of staff, and as his campaign manager and closest aide during the 2008 presidential race.

Diane Paulus
Artistic Director, America Repertory Theater
Power demo:  Reviving theater in Boston with cutting-edge, immersive productions like The Donkey Show and Sleep No More.

Regina Pisa
Chairman/Managing Partner, Goodwin Procter
Power demo:  Nabbing 35 hotshot partners and 26 associates when rival law firm Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault closed — one of the biggest hiring coups in Boston legal history.

Lora Pellegrini
President/CEO, Massachusetts Association of Health Plans
Power demo:  Representing more than 2.3 million Bay State residents covered by 13 different health plans (and serving as Deval Patrick’s chief adviser for legislative affairs).

Linda Pizzuti Henry
Director, John W. Henry Family Foundation; Producer, After the Game
Power demo:  Putting together the snappy video that finally got the ball rolling on the Boston Public Market.

Carol Rose
Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
Power demo:  Leading the charge against racial and sexual intolerance, unjust imprisonment, invasions of privacy, and even Internet censorship.

Laura Sen
President/CEO, BJ’S Wholesale Club
Power demo: Increasing the $10 billion company’s stock value from $30 to $45 during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. How? By pushing the colossus to corner not just the bulk market but also the market for weekly groceries.

Micho Spring
President, New England Weber Shandwick
Power demo:  Teaching heavy-hitter corporate clients like CVS and Genzyme how to make themselves look good in the community.

Meg Vaillancourt
Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Boston Red Sox; Executive Director, Red Sox Foundation
Power demo: Distributing $45 million since 2003 to disadvantaged youth and families through the Olde Towne Team’s philanthropic arm.

Joan Vennochi
Columnist, Boston Globe
Power demo:  There are just a handful of local scribes we truly rely on to offer actual perspective about the state of our city (the rest seem to exist purely to be made fun of). Among the serious few, none uses her Globe-given soapbox to more provocative effect than op-ed writer Joan Vennochi, who’ll take on — and take down — anything from the casino bill to high school bullies to the politics of snow removal. More important, her judgments frequently translate to results. Last November, for example, she blasted the idea that Marty Meehan, a former congressman who now runs UMass Lowell, was being taken seriously as a candidate for UMass president. Just days later, Meehan removed himself from contention for the spot. Coincidence? Quite doubtful. — Donna Garlough

Joan Wallace-Benjamin
President/CEO, The Home for Little Wanderers
Power demo:  Saving the lives of thousands through the Home for Little Wanderers, which in 2010 alone provided more than 60,000 hours of help to children and families in need.

Susan Windham-Bannister
President/CEO Massachusetts Life Sciences Center
Power demo: Orchestrating a $1 billion investment in our medical, biotech, and academic research institutions, bolstering everything from pharmaceuticals to medical devices.