Through her foundation, philanthropist Barbara Lee has endowed a nonpartisan women’s training program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an internship program at the Massachusetts State House for students at Simmons College in Boston. (Credit: The Barbara Lee Family Foundation)

She was one of Hillary Clinton’s top donors in 2016. She walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Sen. Elizabeth Warren at the Women’s March after Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration. She successfully encouraged Katherine Clark, now House minority whip, to run for office again after an earlier political loss.  

Barbara Lee, a philanthropist from Boston, has championed hundreds of female political candidates over the years, supporting them with funding, research and advice through her organization, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. And now, after 25 years of doing this work, she announced her plans to retire at the end of 2024. 

“When I started the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, I dreamed of a future in which women and girls could do anything, and everything,” she said in a statement. “Thanks to the work of our foundation, the work of our partners and the record numbers of the women who have stepped up to run for office, that future is within reach.”

Lee, a former middle school French teacher, first stepped into the political realm in 1996 after her high-profile divorce from financier Thomas H. Lee left her with hundreds of millions of dollars. When she asked her friends what she should do with her wealth, one of them suggested she elect the first woman president.

Whether her friend was serious or not, Lee heeded this advice and launched The White House Project, an initiative spotlighting a roster of potential women presidential candidates, from Dianne Feinstein to Oprah Winfrey. However, after realizing she would have better luck operating on a smaller scale, she launched the Barbara Lee Family Foundation to help elect women to local offices. 

One of her beneficiaries is Rep. Ayanna Pressley. The Massachusetts congresswoman told The Boston Globe that she had run into Lee at the Harvard Kennedy School about two decades ago. They’d met a few times over the years, but this time, Lee slipped her a note reading: “You should run for office one day, and I will write your first check.”

“I’m just tremendously grateful,” Pressley told The Boston Globe. “I know that she passed that same note to many women throughout the years who did not see themselves as leaders, who did not believe they have the profile, the pedigree, the credentials, the worthiness to run.”

In a survey of 4,000 lawyers, business leaders, educators and political activists conducted throughout the years by the Brookings Institution, men have repeatedly expressed more interest than women in running for political office by 16 to 18 percent. A lot of this comes from confidence – more than a third of the men surveyed said they felt “very qualified” to run for office, compared to only one in five women. Additionally, women were three times as likely to rate themselves “not at all qualified.”

To help women candidates build confidence, researchers with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation have curated gender-specific guides, such as how women candidates can talk about parenting and how to deal with sexism on the campaign trail

Plus, Lee plans to go out with a bang – in practically the same breath as her retirement announcement, she pledged to donate $2.5 million to organizations helping advance women’s leadership, such as She Should Run and 1000 Women Strong

“Although there were only a handful of women mentioned by name in my high school American history textbook, my grandchildren will have a completely different experience when it comes to women’s representation,” she said in a statement.