Barbara Lee: Wonder Woman

Since the late 1990s, ­Barbara Lee has ­wagered her fortune on building a world-class modern-art museum in Boston and trying to get a woman elected to the White House. Will this finally be her year?

From the outside, life appeared to be good. The couple bought a new $6 million Georgian mansion in Brookline, along with a vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. But underneath the tony veneer, trouble was brewing. Lee quietly filed for divorce in 1987, before withdrawing the petition in 1989. Then, in 1993, Tom had an affair in Palm Beach with stockbroker Laura Goldman, who began barraging him with harassing phone calls. He eventually paid her more than $200,000 in addition to $15,000 in psychiatric fees to make her go away, according to the Wall Street Journal. (After pleading guilty to harassment in 1996, Goldman continued to threaten Tom for years. In 2009, she finally agreed to leave him alone as part of a plea bargain to avoid jail.)

Lee filed for divorce in August 1993, claiming 50 percent of the couple’s fortune. “I worked very hard to help my former husband start his company and advised him on it,” she says. In the midst of a bitter two-year battle over finances and child custody, Tom’s company turned a $27 million investment in Snapple into a $929 million fortune. In late 1994, Forbes valued his personal wealth at $420 million. Meanwhile, the divorce splayed across the front page of the Boston Globe and detailed Tom Lee’s imbroglio with Goldman, ending a stalemate in the divorce proceedings and compelling Tom to settle. When they signed papers in October 1995, Lee walked away with half of everything.

For Lee, it was a 150-decibel wakeup call. “It’s a hard thing for someone [to go through], and it’s a harder thing for a woman than a man,” says her friend and fellow philanthropist Susan Solomont, who, along with her husband, Alan, is one of the largest Democratic fundraisers in the country. “She could have left town; she could have gone to an island and baked in the sun.”

Lee has little to say about the divorce, except to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide.” When pressed on what influence the money she received in the divorce had on her future as an activist and philanthropist, Lee shoots back, “I just don’t think you’d be asking that of a man. I’d like you to quote me on that.”

Lee concedes, however, that the breakup of her marriage inspired a period of reflection and reorganization. “It gave me an opening to think about how I wanted to do things differently,” she says. “I was on a serious quest to figure out what was going to give me the most satisfaction in life.”


Lee suddenly faced an enviable dilemma. Freshly divorced, she now had millions of dollars burning a hole in her pocketbook. But here’s the thing that most people never get the chance to learn: When you land on that kind of cash, you have to figure out a way to control the money so that the money doesn’t control you.

Lee had always been philanthropic in the usual way: schools, hospitals, and museums. But now she found herself besieged with more open palms than she could manage. Newly appointed to the board of Brandeis University’s women’s studies department, she held a private event at her house in the early 1990s for fellow board members and other women in finance and academia to hear a speaker on the subject of “strategic philanthropy”—the idea of using money not for standard gifts, but to enact social transformation. “I had a passion to change things,” Lee says.

After that night, she began asking everyone she met what they would do to change the world. She considered supporting women’s microenterprise and women’s health issues, but nothing resonated until 1997, when Laura Liswood, head of a United Nations network of female world leaders, suggested, “What about running several women for the presidency?”

At that moment, everything changed, Lee says. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

She and Liswood plowed ahead and in 1998 cofounded the White House Project with Marie Wilson, of the Ms. Foundation, running ads in women’s magazines promoting 20 female candidates for president, including Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, and Christine Todd Whitman. It was a publicity stunt to be sure, undermined by the fact that in the same year, eight out of 10 women running for governor lost. That reality only deepened Lee’s conviction. “We need to get serious about helping women overcome the obstacles they face,” she told herself, “and provide strategies [to help them] win.” Never one to sit on the sidelines, she continued pouring cash into political races and simultaneously started her foundation, focusing on research and polling data to help women win.

At the time, only 16 women had ever been elected governor in the United States. Lee’s foundation got to work commissioning exit polls for select governors’ races that year and analyzed media coverage of the campaigns. The results revealed a mass of contradictions. Voters were more likely to trust women on certain issues and found them to be honest and cooperative, but at the same time considered them less decisive and needed more convincing of their qualifications for office. “Over and over, people will say she doesn’t look like a governor—because people haven’t gotten used to seeing a woman governor,” Lee says. “So much of it is subliminal. People don’t even realize they have these prejudices against women.”

Lee’s foundation summarized its research in a colorful handbook called Keys to the Governor’s Office: The Guide for Women Running for Governor. “We [made the book] bright yellow on purpose,” she says, and printed it “small enough to fit into a women’s handbag.” Lee is a problem solver at heart, so it’s no surprise that her book was full of constructive advice for women candidates—from how to raise money to convincing voters that you have the necessary experience for the job. Women, the book advised, are better off emphasizing their past management or executive experience, and, unlike men, have to persuade voters that they are not neglecting their children—at the same time reassuring voters that they would not be distracted by their children while in office. To former two-term Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, the book “was an epiphany.”

photograph by tony luong

Granholm met Lee in 2000, two years after Granholm had been elected attorney general, when they were both campaigning for Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow. During the campaign, Lee told her, “You are going to run for governor.”

Granholm demurred. “I just got into office,” she said.

Lee pressed, “I can see a path.”

When Granholm did decide to run for governor two years later, Lee counseled her on how to thread that difficult needle between being compassionate and tough. “People want a strong CEO,” Granholm says. “On the other hand, if you come across too strong, people will attribute the ‘B word’ to you.” Lee made sure Granholm knew about her foundation’s research, and Granholm eschewed spiky heels and flashy jewelry for simple pantsuits and longer skirts while emphasizing her executive accomplishments as attorney general. Granholm eventually defeated her male opponent with 51 percent of the vote.

Of course, Granholm wasn’t the first—or the last—person Lee predicted was going to run before the candidate knew it herself. “I finally see myself as a talent scout,” Lee says, referring fondly to “protégés” that include City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Attorney General Maura Healey, state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, and former Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral. Over and over, Lee has encouraged women to throw their hats in the ring. Research funded by her foundation shows that “You have to ask women more than once,” Lee says. “Men self-select very easily.”

Once women get into office, however, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, they tend to govern differently, supporting not only women’s and family issues, but also pursuing policies that are more compassionate toward minorities and poor people. “Women themselves have been underrepresented,” says Walsh, who Lee collaborated with on research. “They know the price that is paid when your voice isn’t heard.”

Lee’s research—and her financial support—have helped move the needle in local politics. Longtime Democratic fundraiser and former Bank of Boston executive Shanti Fry, who lives a block from Lee in Cambridge, remembers that when she first started in politics in 1985 and threw a fundraiser for vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, there just weren’t any female candidates. Back then, Massachusetts had only three congresswomen, and no women in higher office. “It’s really easy to forget,” Fry says. “It really took a woman of Barbara’s vision—and not paying attention to reality [to change that].”

But that’s not the only inequity Lee has set forth to change.