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From left: Barbara Lee of Cambridge, who describes herself as an 'activist-philanthropist'; Lee (third from right) at an October 2003 event in Boston with US Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.); a button from Barbara Lee's office; Geraldine Ferraro, with Walter Mondale, during the 1984 campaign.
From left: Barbara Lee of Cambridge, who describes herself as an "activist-philanthropist"; Lee (third from right) at an October 2003 event in Boston with US Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.); a button from Barbara Lee's office; Geraldine Ferraro, with Walter Mondale, during the 1984 campaign. (Photos / Carl Tremblay, Thomas Fitzsimmons, Globe Files)

Looking for Madam President

Barbara Lee, the former wife of multimillionaire businessman Tom Lee, is looking past Bush and Kerry and using her fortune, zeal, and web of political connections (Hillary's practically on speed dial) to put a woman in the White House. But are we ready?

There is a reflexive hush when someone whispers, "Hillary's here." It is a good thing the crowd gathered in this Cambridge living room filled with contemporary art doesn't need quieting, because the hostess, Barbara Lee, doesn't have a very loud voice. By the time Lee waves her arms to command her guests' attention, the events of the day -- last October 3 -- have spoken for her: This is the VIP portion of a fund-raiser she is hosting for four US senators -- Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, Patty Murray of Washington, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- netting each woman almost $100,000 in contributions.

Perhaps it fits the tone of the evening that the largely female gathering is served mostly by male waiters in white gloves offering lamb rib appetizers and waiting patiently for the discarded bones. For a change, women are eating the meat.

While much of America feels tethered by testosterone diplomacy in Iraq, there is agitation at home to change the face of power. The question is how much of a change the country's electorate truly wants. The idea of a woman in the White House is hardly a novel one women have sought the presidency since Victoria Woodhull ran in 1872, 48 years before women could even vote. "It is now just a matter of time," says Mikulski, a Democrat who is the longest-serving woman in the US Senate. "A woman will be vice president and president."

But 20 years after Geraldine Ferraro became the first and only woman nominated to a presidential ticket by a major party, women like Barbara Lee are tired of waiting for history to wend its course, tired of people saying "soon." There is broad agreement among female political activists that putting more women in power, including the presidency, is now a critical goal demanding strategic use of money, energy, and savvy. And after years of vague gestures, there is a hunger to mobilize and get it done, as some studies show that voters find women more trustworthy and honest than men and more interested in fixing education, social injustices, and bloated bureaucracies. Yet even determined activists acknowledge that the world today presents challenges that didn't exist a few years ago, and that fighting wars, taking on terrorists, and protecting the public are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as man's work. Barbara Lee knows this as well as anyone.

Kerry/Edwards, Bush/Cheney. Whatever else happens this political season, one thing will remain the same: men competing against men for control of the White House. Quite apart from issues of party and political philosophy, voters continue to have a problem with the idea of a woman steering the ship of state. But there is one smart and very wealthy woman at work, zealously determined to change the perceptions that have limited the role of women in national politics, who is helping to groom credible female candidates for the highest office in the land. When the first Ms. President is inaugurated, history books will show that tonight's hostess -- Barbara Lee -- helped put her there.

* * *

Barbara Lee is a petite woman who describes herself as an "activist-philanthropist." She resembles a more introspective Barbara Walters, with oval wire-rimmed glasses and blond hair; she shuns coffee and sweets, favors sensible shoes, and is a knowledgeable art collector. She does not come across as the dynamo whom she envisions stepping into the American presidency or any other elected office for which she supports female candidates. But Lee, whose widely publicized divorce from leveraged-buyout king Thomas Lee in 1996 left her with hundreds of millions of dollars, is clear and passionate about her mission.

"My work," she explains in a cab heading to a Back Bay fund-raiser, "is about leveraging power to make change."

Lee is not alone in her efforts. Ellen R. Malcolm of EMILY's List (EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast) is a national political force. Marie C. Wilson of the Ms. Foundation for Women is now devoting herself full time to The White House Project, which she founded with Lee and Laura Liswood of Harvard's Kennedy School. Groups like American Women Presidents, started in 2000, are agitating for female leadership at the top. Feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women, are helping to train, support, and elect women. Issues groups are retooling, like WAND, which in 1991 changed its name from Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament to Women's Action for New Directions and has since helped elect 30 women to Congress.

Lee herself fills a void on the organizational landscape, possessing the deep pockets essential for serious political legwork and, in her staff of eight, the flexibility of a small organization.

"She's very important nationally," says Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "She's been able to bring together big-name people for major events. Our center does major events but doesn't have the funds to convene that level of brainpower and prominence. She can put together a million-dollar bash, and most places can't do that."

Lee is planning a 3,000-person rally and concert during this week's Democratic National Convention in Boston to get ordinary women charged up by Democratic stars like Clinton, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, the Harvard Law-educated politician who has conservative George F. Will arguing for altering rules so non-native citizens can run for president (Granholm was born in Canada). Lee can use workshops at the event to better expose lesser-known women facing tough races.

Lee can pay for research to feed the "pipeline" of presidential candidates and help elect more females governor, a common path to the Oval Office. This September, she's planning to distribute a set of three booklets, including an updated "Keys to the Governor's Office," to provide concrete help to both Democratic and Republican women in crafting messages with focus-group-tested advice on phrases to shun and embrace and in avoiding what she calls the "tough/soft dilemma."

She uses her connections and fund-raising power to scout and aid candidates at home for example, raising money for Suffolk County sheriff candidate Andrea J. Cabral and bringing her into the Kennedy orbit. She can also reach across the country to help Democrat Kathleen Sebelius get elected governor of Kansas, a predominantly Republican state, and create a buzz around Arizona governor Janet Napolitano.

Lee's detractors see her casting too broad a net with no specific focus, having her hands in so many pots at once. But her defenders, like venture capitalist and political activist Sheryl Marshall, are quick to counter that "this is uncharted territory. I don't think anybody knows yet what will work. If a guy was doing the same thing, they would never say he was scattered; they would say he is trying different things."

* * *

It's stunning that in a nation exalted as a model of democracy, representation is so lopsided. Women make up more than half the population but hold just 15 percent of the seats in Congress. According to the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, the United States ranks 59th in the world in percentage of women serving in national legislatures or parliaments, trailing many European and South American nations. No woman has reached the highest office here, while in England, Ireland, Iceland, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Nicaragua, among others, women have been elected to run their nations. Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders at the Kennedy School, points to American myths casting males as dragon slayers and females as Cinderellas. "She is hanging around, cleaning the fireplace, talking to mice, waiting for the prince to rescue her," says Liswood. "That is not the myth of great leadership."

For most of American history, politics and government have been dominated by men. In 1776, Abigail Adams warned her husband that "if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

That rebellion was a long time coming: Women did not win the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920. The belief that women ruled the home and men ruled the world dominated for years. In 1870, a woman seeking to practice law was rebuffed by the Illinois Supreme Court. "That God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and that it belonged to men to make, apply, and execute the laws, [is] regarded as an almost axiomatic truth," the court ruled.

The problem is that leadership is conceived as masculine, says Sumru Erkut, associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women; research shows in the abstract that people still link "leader" with "male." And the tougher the better, especially in wartime. Witness President Bush's "dead or alive" utterances and his macho aircraft carrier landing.

Are girls tough enough to lead? Can a woman take on terrorists as effectively as a man? Can she balance a budget? Run a war? Hit a perfect golf drive with TV cameras rolling?

Such questions presume men and women lead differently, the result of well-worn social roles of women as mothers, guardians of home and hearth, and caretakers. There are exceptions, of course, like national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (appointed, not elected), but voters as a mass don't see them. Lee has funded research to help women candidates understand what voters think and offer field-tested approaches to counter perceived weaknesses.

"National security, in particular, is a challenging issue for female candidates, especially among male voters," according to a Lee report called "Speaking With Authority." On "issues of terrorism and military response, both men and women voters listen for male voices." But research also shows that "female candidates are persuasive when they talk about safety, preparedness, and keeping voters informed."

A poll Lee commissioned in December 2001 on voters' general preferences showed 23 percent favored male candidates and 16 percent favored female candidates. Still, more than half of those polled -- 56 percent -- had no gender preference for candidates, and on many specific issues, other Lee-funded research has shown that females trump males. Voters find both Democratic and Republican female candidates more honest than male counterparts by more than 2 to 1. By even wider margins, voters perceive males as more corrupt and more controlled by special interests. Voters trust female candidates over male candidates, polls show, when it comes to improving education, managing social programs, putting people's interests first, watching finances and setting priorities, and eliminating bureaucracy in state government.

The assumption that men must lead in war-time ignores how much war has changed, argues Wilson, president of The White House Project, co-creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World. "The nature of wars is that it is 90 percent civilian casualties . . . and most of the time these start as localized conflict," says Wilson. "The way women see foreign policy and how they deal with the whole notion of equalizing access to resources is an important component in preventing world wars."

The very idea that one gender is uniformly "tougher" is more about political spin than reality. Susan Shaer, executive director of WAND, which educates female state legislators about the federal budget to ready them for congressional runs, says women must find ways to counter beliefs that men are tougher by cultivating "the mother lion image." She says, "We have not allowed that image to come to the fore enough. In these times . . . we need to show we can be tough and make people feel secure."

After all, stubbornness and threats can seem tough, when studied negotiation may require more toughness. President John F. Kennedy was the model of toughness during the Cuban missile crisis -- and he didn't fire a shot. "What's a woman's issue?" asks US Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat and member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "The security of the family is often the total responsibility of the mother or wife in the family, protecting the children in the household, protecting the homestead in the old days. Let's start there."

* * *

What makes Barbara Lee and her plan to put a woman in the White House so powerful is that she and her vision are mainstream. The goal of electing women to high office is not the battle cry of a disaffected fringe but a reasonable quest at a point in history when increasing numbers of women are major players in corporate America.

It is no accident, New York Times writer Sharon Waxman notes, that Hollywood's newest male stars are far from the rugged Steve McQueen-Robert Redford-Arnold Schwarzenegger leading men of past decades. With women in top positions at Sony, Disney, and Universal and a public appetite for metrosexual males, sensitive types like Tobey Maguire, Orlando Bloom, and Jake Gyllenhaal are today's heroes.

Whether this simply reflects recent box office vagaries is unclear. But the larger point -- that the nation may finally be ready for more feminine, nuanced leadership -- is worthy of notice. Former president Bill Clinton, in a recent Time magazine interview, says success in politics requires having both "the wussy-mommy qualities and the macho-tough qualities," the ability to accept ambiguity and have compassion -- and the ability to know when to stand and fight.

* * *

Like most women of her generation, Barbara Lee, who is 59, was not raised as a feminist activist. She has never actually ignited a brassiere and was conditioned to put herself second, to be the support system for children and husband. In many ways, she has lived an ordinary woman's life -- working, volunteering at school, and dealing with a successful husband who was not the easiest guy to live with, according to friends who knew the couple.

What's compelling is that Lee has not only survived a bitter divorce from a powerful man but has emerged as a power in her own right. US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden describes Lee as "a one-woman political powerhouse." Lee's liberation, though, has not brought a hunger for control -- she comes across nearly devoid of ego -- but feeds a mission to help other women find and exercise power.

Raised in a middle-class Jewish home in West Orange, New Jersey, the older of two children and the daughter of Sidney and Ruth Fish, a dentist and a homemaker, Lee had a tradition-bound upbringing that kept protest beyond her ken. Lee hedges but hints that she was a looker in high school, noting sheepishly that the smartest boy in her class "forgot" his books so he could share with her. She was a cheerleader but also a "very scrappy" guard on the basketball team. Back then (Lee graduated in 1963), "girls' rules" made sure she never played too aggressively.

She attended Simmons College in the 1960s, and her rebellion was "being a good student," though her parents believed college was for meeting a man. By the time she graduated in 1967, Lee had invested in her first art -- a $200 Picasso print -- and perceived a larger though undefined role for herself, a feeling first sparked by a high school citizenship award.

Within a few months of graduation, Barbara Fish met Tom Lee while he was visiting friends in the Central Square apartment next to hers -- he was a bank teller; she'd landed a job as a middle school French teacher -- and in February 1968 they were married. She later earned a master's degree in social work at Boston University, did some counseling, and had two sons, Zach, now 33, and Robbie, 23.

Many women in the 1970s began pushing back against tradition, and Lee was no exception. During a January 1972 mom-and-baby celebration of Zach's first birthday, she gave out unorthodox party favors: the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine. She joined WAND and participated with Martha's Vineyard boaters (she has a home there) in protesting Navy bombing practice on No Man's Island. At a 1980 Lincoln Town Meeting, Lee saw the power of her vote "and the power of mobilizing someone else's vote" after begging an exiting couple to stay. They voted with her, defeating by three votes a plan Lee opposed to move Town Hall into a school building.

It wasn't long after that Steve Grossman invited Lee to join her first board, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Grossman, former Democratic Party chair and gubernatorial candidate, says he saw in Lee "an enormous amount of talent, energy, and commitment to communal service" that "needed a little bit of water to reach full flower."

* * *

The point where Barbara Lee's story digresses from that of Everywoman is when she and Tom Lee become multimillionaires. Just before the couple divorced in 1996 after 28 years of marriage, Forbes magazine put Tom Lee's net worth at $600 million (last year, he was 294 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, with $900 million). Barbara Lee won't discuss the settlement; but state law provides for equitable distribution of assets, so it's a safe assumption that she has money, lots of money. People can appear excessively careful around her, studiously avoiding criticism as if scared by her wealth or wary of inflicting pain on a woman who some intimate has had enough in her life already. Her late mother had cancer twice, and her father died soon after Lee graduated from college. Lee avoids discussing her marriage or divorce in emotional terms, which is either a good defense mechanism or just a part of her highly guarded personality. She treads so delicately that, though her son Zach notes the divorce "got uglier than some divorces I've seen," Lee praises her former husband's "incredible drive and vigor."

"Tom really kind of modeled some of that for me," she says. "I'm at a place where I can use those qualities to make change and make a difference in the world."

If Tom Lee has made a fortune scouting underdeveloped potential, Barbara Lee may be right in thinking that ability rubbed off on her. While Tom and Barbara Lee as a couple were philanthropic, she says a light went on when she heard a talk about using money to affect society, not just support mainstream institutions. Lee's early giving, endowing a gender and politics course at Brandeis University and making the founding gift for the Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change, was more traditional. But she soon sought other ways to advance women's power.

In 1997, Lee, Liswood, and Wilson founded the White House Project, whose early achievements included publicizing a "ballot" that planted in the national consciousness concrete images of a female president, including Elizabeth Dole, Christine Todd Whitman, Dianne Feinstein, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Lee saw a problem: There weren't enough women with the executive political experience to win the Oval Office.

"If we want to elect a woman president, one of the ways to do that is to elect more women governors," says Lee, who commissioned research to understand voter bias and obstacles facing female gubernatorial candidates. Today, Lee works through three entities in her Harvard Square offices: the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, the Lee Family Office, and her new organization, Revolutionary Women. Projects range from laserlike focus on governorships to broad efforts to persuade more women to vote. The political pin that is her trademark reads: "It's a Man's World Unless Women VOTE."

Lee's work bears all the contradictions of her past and present. Even as she is very public about her work and puts her name on her philanthropy -- $5 million toward construction of a new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, millions more for organizations such as Women's Voices/Women's Vote, Women's eNews, and the Million Mom March, and for research at the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics -- she is evasive about personal details. She is soft-spoken and careful but also boasts about her daring, taking a spin on the back of her older son's motorcycle and recently, while visiting the new Boston Convention & Exposition Center, arranging a tour of the catwalks 100 feet above the floor. "I'm a daredevil in restraint," she quips.

On another day, resigned to the interview process, she sits in her slate-floored sunroom where she cultivates both finicky orchids and weedy spider plants, and uses notes to prompt recollections. Lee doesn't select words carefully, or even seem to enjoy words much, and is eager to get anecdotes told rather than relish the telling. She is a highly visual person who has an almost spatial approach to the orchestrated interplay of people, ideas, and energy. She is elegant and scrappy, persistent but well-mannered. After one of our meetings, Lee sends a handwritten thank-you.

Lee surrounds herself with smart, serious women with political experience and passion for feminist work. Her schedule includes attendance at political events, travel, lunch with female state legislators, and, recently, meetings to nail down details for her rally and concert this Tuesday at the South Boston convention center. Sometimes she sits in her office, inexpensively furnished and decorated with feminist memorabilia, including campaign buttons from Shirley Chisholm's and Pat Schroeder's short-lived presidential campaigns, and makes phone calls from white binders of "call sheets" to personally invite female political powers to speak or attend a VIP reception.

In large part, it is her hostess power that makes Lee, not very charismatic herself, a national force: She gets big names to headline and throngs to show up. On October 3 (apart from the party at her house later that day), Lee hoped 300 would come to the Sheraton Boston for her $100-per-person ($20 for college students) fundraising event for the four female senators, but instead 900 showed, including a woman who Lee says saved $5 a week from grocery money to attend.

"It's not Barbara those people come to see," says Senator Lincoln of Arkansas, a Democrat. "They come because she creates an environment, because people are reassured that the process still works and they are excited about their own potential."

Arizona governor Napolitano says Lee lends female candidates credibility. "It is not just being a money source -- she is an energy source," says Napolitano, elected in 2002. "We don't get that a lot in public life, someone who says, `You can do this and I can help.'"

Kansas governor Sebelius, elected in 2002, says Lee raised money for her run and led her to recast her experience as insurance commissioner when campaigning. Instead of highlighting consumer work, she spoke about managing a multibillion-dollar financial services industry and how she halted outside takeover of the state's Blue Cross Blue Shield. She learned from Lee to confront biased reporting. After a news story that focused on her open-toed shoes and red nail polish while her opponent got ink about his issues, her staff called the reporter. "That was never written again," she says.

Closer to home, Lee met Andrea Cabral, candidate for Suffolk County sheriff, in February when they and other notable Boston women performed The Vagina Monologues for charity. While many talked about helping Cabral, Barbara Grossman, drama and dance chair at Tufts University, who is married to Steve Grossman, says, "It was Barbara who said, `Let's do it.'"

Lee, who imagines Cabral, a black woman, in higher office, has championed her candidacy, offered advice, raised money, and widened her circle of supporters. At a June fund-raiser, Cabral jokes about her luck: Eighteen months ago, she was a Suffolk County prosecutor and citizen. Now she is in actress Christy Scott Cashman's Back Bay home -- all chandeliers, gold-leaf-accented moldings, and marble floors -- facing a small, influential group dining on cold poached salmon and potato salad with dill. And being introduced by Victoria Reggie Kennedy. Cabral says support has come fast; when Senator Edward M. Kennedy dialed her home to praise her candidacy, Cabral first thought it was a prank call from a friend.

"Barbara is a mentor in terms of the political process, particularly [for] someone who is going through her first election," says Cabral, who faces Boston city councilor Stephen Murphy in a September 14 primary.

H. Peter Karoff, founder of The Philanthropic Initiative and editor of a new book, Just Money: A Critique of Contemporary American Philanthropy, says many philanthropists press for social change, but Lee is one of the few putting herself and her connections into play. "David Rockefeller, all those years he was head of Chase Bank, he was a phenomenal leader. And it wasn't his money, it was his Rolodex," says Karoff. "Barbara Lee can call people and get that call returned -- and she uses that."

The combination of connections and money has become a critical coupling in politics, says David Magelby, a dean at Brigham Young University who studies campaign finance. He says new federal law that places a limit of $2,000 on individual donations to federal campaigns puts a premium on networking. "Now brokers like Ms. Lee or Ms. Malcolm [of EMILY's List] who have the gumption and willpower to risk rejection by asking people for money have an expanded role in federal elections." Magelby says Lee "will accelerate the pace of change," getting more women into higher office sooner.

Alan D. Solomont, national Democratic fund-raiser and John Kerry's Massachusetts finance chairman, says Lee is turning up the pressure on traditional male Democratic donors to support female candidates across the country. "Would men be giving money to female candidates if it weren't for Barbara Lee? Yes. Are we giving more money to female candidates because Barbara Lee is telling us to do it? Absolutely," he says. "To the extent some people feel fund-raising is a boy's sport, she has made it coeducational."

WHAT GERALDINE FERRARO remembers most about looking out from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 are all the tears. "The image is the number of people who were absolutely crying," says Ferraro, now an executive vice president with The Global Consulting Group. "It was so emotional."

How important is it for a woman to be president? "It grows more important every year she is not elected," argues Carolanne Curry, president of the Women's Campaign School at Yale University, which has honored Lee for her work. "The White House is important because it must be accessible to women."

Feminists avoid talking about Ferraro's nomination as symbolic. But there's no escaping the disappointment. "We thought it would be a breakthrough that would be a pattern for the future," says Mikulski, who helped orchestrate her nomination. "That hasn't materialized."

The dearth of national-ticket nominees after Ferraro, however, has spurred activists to increase the pool of qualified female politicians at every level, not just as a pipeline to the presidency but to get people used to the idea of women leaders. Erkut of the Wellesley Centers for Women notes that even though people in the abstract consider leadership as male, "when a specific woman is being talked about, she can be seen as having tremendous leadership."

Getting a woman into the Oval Office requires women with the household-name status Hillary Clinton enjoys and grooming voters to picture a woman not in just any elected office but as president. "We've broken the glass ceiling on legislative positions," argues Harman, the California congresswoman who mounted an unsuccessful bid for governor. "Voters view people running for executive positions differently."

And that includes the governor's office. Lee's research shows that voters "need more information to conclude that a woman is prepared to be governor than they need to draw the same conclusion about a man." What's more, voters "give men credit for experience outside of public service but don't give equal credit for women's comparable private sector experience." Men can leap from CEO to the governor's office, as Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts or George W. Bush did in Texas, while women must show a strong record of statewide political managerial experience, such as lieutenant governor or attorney general. The lesson: Women will probably have to make more political steps on the road to the White House.

Times have changed since Ferraro's dream, and that of many women, was dashed when Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan. Reagan's death was a reminder not only of the past but of how partisan we have become. Political parties have always mattered, but the ferocity with which we divide voters -- Democrat or Republican, NASCAR dad or soccer mom -- offers a particular dilemma.

Which matters more: party or gender?

EMILY's List supports only Democratic women. WAND supports Democratic women and "progressive" (read: abortion-rights advocates) Republican women, whom Shaer says "are very marginalized" by their party. Ferraro offers Democratic and Republican names as presidential prospects: Clinton and US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Ferraro favors a Democrat but wants to be sure a woman wins the presidency in her lifetime.

Hardy-Fanta, who studies voting patterns, thinks the first female president will be Republican, because female Democratic voters are more likely than Republican counterparts to cross party lines to vote for a female. Plus, she argues, "the woman has to be more acceptable to the traditionalists."

Barbara Lee, whose foundation work is bipartisan, is herself Democratic. She has in the past supported female candidates of both parties, but she no longer contributes to Republicans, chiefly because she wants to support the Democratic pro-abortion-rights agenda. One could argue that Lee is hurting her own cause, limiting her pool of future women presidential candidates, but she doesn't see it that way. Party affiliation aside, "Women are more likely to be engaged in politics, to vote, and even consider running for office themselves when they see more women in public office," says Lee.

It is precisely because so much of electoral politics is about numbers that Lee is fixated on one in particular: 22 million. That's how many unmarried women did not vote in the last presidential election. On the eve of the April 25 March for Women's Lives, Lee stood in Nancy Pelosi's packed Georgetown apartment, eager for Markey to understand the power of that number: Candidates must reach these 22 million women.

"She wants the Democratic Party to focus on single women who do not believe the political process works for them," says Markey weeks later. He says Lee's argument (and research she funded to support it) has reached top Democrats who know painfully well from 2000 the value of every vote, and once Lee made her case for drawing in these potential voters, "this became a high priority. It is now something every candidate is aware of as a potential source of new support."

Markey pauses, speaking into a cellphone that has cut off a half-dozen times. Then he adds, "You can't make a bigger political contribution than that."

Lee is convinced she can.

Laura Pappano's most recent article for the magazine was on women closing the gender gap in sports. 

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