Barbara Flynn Currie

“I would never have been in politics all these years if I had not been an optimist.”

Interviewed by Karen Fishman, VFA Board, January 2022

KF: This is Karen Fishman, and I’m here with Barbara Flynn Currie. The Honorable Barbara Flynn Currie who was my state legislator way back when, whom I’ve known for a long time. Barbara, just to start, please give us your full name and tell us when and where you were born.

BFC: Barbara Flynn Currie. I was born May 3rd, 1940, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I moved to Chicago when I was seven years old, and that’s pretty much where I’ve lived since, with temporary accommodations in Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York City.

KF: Please tell me what your early life was like, and about your family background.

BFC: My parents were both social workers. My father taught at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. They were both very interested in civil rights and civil liberties, and much of our dining table conversation was about people who didn’t have the kind of voice, the kind of rights that they ought to have. I grew up in a family that didn’t support capital punishment and supported people who need to have better resources, better lives. They were very concerned about economic inequities. That was the bread and butter of the Flynn family way of doing business.

KF: And you went on to carry that forward rather than to rebel against?

BFC: Right.

KF: Tell me about your education and what life was like in Chicago in those days.

BFC: As I said, I moved here when I was seven, and I was in second grade at St. Thomas the Apostle School, which is still my neighborhood parish, although I’m a recovering Catholic, not one who attends church regularly. I went to the University of Chicago High School, Lab School, and after that I went to college at the University of Chicago. I got married after the first quarter of my second year, when I was 19, and went off to Cambridge, Massachusetts where my new husband was finishing law school.

KF: You came back to Chicago after that?

BFC: Yes, several years after that. I did, finally, finish my undergraduate degree and also a master’s degree in political science, slowly, on motherhood time.

KF: And taking time off to have children, right?

BFC: Yes.

KF: Tell me when you first became aware of the women’s movement and women’s issues per sé and when that was.

BFC: It’s a little hard for me to remember. It was a very long time ago. As I say, I’d been concerned about issues of equity for women, for people of color from early times, and I was certainly aware of the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. I was certainly a strong supporter of ERA. And of course, when ERA passed the Congress, it was God, motherhood and apple pie. Practically nobody opposed it and there was overwhelming support in state legislature after state legislature. So support began creeping to a halt in, I think, the middle-late ’70s. I didn’t go to Springfield until 1979. The Equal Rights Amendment had already been very much a hot potato in both the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate.

KF: Did you have a career before you went to the legislature, or were you in school and raising a family?

BFC: Mostly in school and raising a family.

KF: What made you decide to run? I mean, there were not very many women in the Illinois legislature at that time.

BFC: There were not. And it was not because I was a really imaginative, driven person. I ran into somebody on the street in whose campaign for the constitutional convention I’d worked. Days earlier, a local progressive Democratic member of the Illinois House had announced his plan to retire. And I asked Mike Shakman, “Are you running?” And he said, “No, why don’t you?” So that was the spark of the idea and checking with family, checking with friends, checking with other people involved in local politics, I decided to go for it.

My husband was very supportive, my children were another story. My son was then 14, 15, and he was going through a very conservative phase. And I said, “What would you think if I were to run for state representative?” And he said, “Oh, that would be cool… oh, wait a minute, Mom. You don’t stand for anything I believe in.”

KF: Kids that age worry that you’re going to embarrass them if you have a public job.

BFC: Well, of course. This same son did come around, and he spent the last, I don’t know, 20 years working every presidential election, leaving his home in New York state to work the precincts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, wherever he’s needed, for the Democrats.

KF: What was the experience like, of running as a woman in 1978?

BFC: For me, it was not so tough. I came from an area, and particularly the places in my district where people voted in large numbers, where people were very open to the idea of a woman running for elective office. I don’t mean everybody was keen, but I don’t think there was the immediate, “She can’t possibly do it. She’s a woman.” That did not come through loud and clear. But I know that for many women in many other districts, that would have been a major issue in 1979. I just don’t think it was here. And in fact, at the end of the day, the Democratic primary which had, I think, 10 contenders, the two who came out on top were both women – Carol Moseley Braun and me.

KF: I remember that campaign because I was living in your district then. Were there any particular issues that animated you? Was it about being a public servant, being where policy was made, and/or specific issues that motivated you early on?

BFC: Certainly, there were some specific issues, welfare issues, as I say. I grew up in a family very concerned about economic inequality and problems of people who were struggling to make it and had to rely on welfare. Those problems were important to me. Gun control was also very important to me, as was the death penalty. Both the issue of trying to rein in guns out of control and the issue of eliminating the death penalty in Illinois, both of those were animating factors for me. And having come from a family in which service is valued, the idea of actually being a public servant was certainly appealing.

KF: Did you face barriers once you got there?

BFC: The usual, of course. The hierarchies of the male patriarchy and the hierarchies in Springfield and politics are no different from where they are in any other place. So women were not given positions of power, of strength, just as they weren’t anyplace else. I remember one of the things that happened was that all the liberal men would give us women their bills, the bills that were going nowhere, bills that would be good for women and children.

They would say, “Oh, Barbara, I’ve got a great bill for you.” Whether it was pay equity, whatever it was, they were tired of it. And they saw a woman. They said, “Good, you can take over.” The other thing they did, the not-so-liberal men, was they felt a little guilty when they couldn’t support the Equal Rights Amendment. But they would say, “Barbara, I just can’t vote for the ERA. But I did vote for that bill about domestic violence.” At one level they were not willing to accept us, but they were certainly willing to try to make nice to these new kids on the block.

KF: The ERA extension bill passed right around the time you got to Springfield. And Illinois became obviously a big focal point of that campaign to become one of the final three states. Tell us a little bit about how you were involved in that.

BFC: First of all, I just had a letter from a friend of mine, Gail Purkey, who used to be a school teacher and then worked for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and worked for the Arts Council. She and her husband are downsizing, and she came across some pictures from an ERA rally, I think, in 1980. She had taken a bus from the Metro East area. It left at midnight. She had pictures of me with the likes of Bella Abzug, Norman Lear, Phil Donahue, Valerie Harper. That was a trip. And I really didn’t remember the specifics about those rallies. I didn’t remember the excitement of all these really important people coming to town. I didn’t remember that I did get to be part of it. Gail didn’t know me when she took these pictures, but it’s just a total trip and a treat to see them now.

KF: But in the legislature, what was that fight like?

BFC: It was fairly brutal, fairly bloody. My particular focus became the question whether the three-fifths requirement in the Illinois Constitution was in fact constitutional. There had been a federal court ruling in a case involving a federal election issue in Indiana. And the court seemed to say you can’t erect additional barriers to those that are already set out in the federal Constitution, the basic electoral scheme. Using that particular case, we worked hard to require a simple majority, not an extraordinary majority, vote to ratify federal Constitutional amendments.

I tried to change the rules in the Illinois House but because the three-fifths language was in the state Constitution, mine was an uphill battle. I didn’t succeed. But there’s no question that had Illinois had a constitutional majority requirement rather than the three-fifths requirement, ERA would have been ratified in Illinois before I even got to the Illinois House of Representatives.

KF: I know that you worked actively with the National Organization for Women and other women’s movement organizations throughout that struggle. Can you talk about that a little bit? Is there a conflict between your role as a legislator, and your passion for the issues?

BFC: I don’t think so. In fact, I thought it was wonderful to have the kind of grassroots support that we did have to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Not only all these stellar movie stars and important personages from here, there, and everywhere, but the everyday people who came out to support the ratification effort in Illinois. The crowds were enormous. And the kind of work people did behind the scenes, to me, that was part and parcel of what I was about as a state lawmaker, and it made me very happy.

KF: And you stayed in the legislature for a very long time?

BFC: Forty years, Karen. It’s shocking. It just shows you I have no imagination, right? I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

KF: Tell me some more about your career there. What were the most important things you worked on, and what are the things you’re most proud of?

BFC: Freedom of information was very important to me. I was the sponsor of the first Freedom of Information Act to pass the Illinois General Assembly. There was one other state that didn’t have one, it was Mississippi, and we beat them out by about three weeks. So that was a really important item on my list.

Sexual discrimination in employment and education, those are important issues as well. And we did succeed with some good bills that made that less an issue. I was very impressed with people like Barbara Engel and Julie Hamos, women who were working to see to it that we could quell domestic violence. That was very important. I was not the sponsor; Alan Greiman was. But it was certainly an issue that I cared greatly about.

I also worked hard at trying to do my homework and make sure that I knew what I was talking about when I was talking about an issue. Ultimately, I think that did help. In 1997, I became the majority leader. I was the first woman to hold the post, and I held it for the next 20 years. I may have served as majority leader longer than anyone else. But my appointment  was a shock to the system. When it was announced, the men were totally befuddled, completely amazed.

The person who writes the news column, The Capital Facts, said, “It never occurred to me it would be a woman. Never occurred to me.” Well, yeah, it didn’t. And in fact, one of my favorite responses was from the woman who was then working for the Department of Corrections as a legislative liaison. She came into my office and she said, “Barb, I just can’t believe this. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. And if there’s anything I can do for you, if you need somebody out of the slammer, just let me know.”

KF: I won’t ask you if you ever took her up on that.

BFC: No, it was a joke. But her reaction shows how enthusiastically women took to the news.

KF: During your tenure, obviously, the complexion of the legislature changed. There are now many more women. Did those changes have an impact on you? What did they mean?

BFC: It meant that I had a lot more support than I started out with, and that was very important. I don’t think for a minute that if there were five women among 177 or even 118 Democrats in the Illinois House, one of them was likely to become majority leader. It helped enormously that there were a lot of women in the Assembly by this time, and they were concerned about making sure that women had access to positions of power. I think that was very helpful. I don’t mean to say I ran a campaign, but I think that it had an impact.

KF: And did the issues change? I mean, what influence did the growing numbers of women have in terms of what the legislature took up?

BFC: Probably nothing cataclysmic, probably not a sea change from one day to the next. But I do think that women, generally speaking, are very much more responsive, at least for starters, on issues of education, on issues that matter to children. One of the bills that I’m really proud of is that I was the sponsor of the bill that made early childhood education available to preschoolers who otherwise were at risk of school failure without it.

And during my time in Springfield, that program expanded and expanded and expanded. And I don’t mean to say there were not lots of men who were very helpful, Jim Edgar was one, Jim Thompson was another. But the number of women who recognized how important it was for mothers, for working women to be able to have childcare, I think that made a big difference.

KF: Are there other issues that you were involved in or experiences that you had with women’s movement activists that you recall particularly?

BFC: I do remember talking about employment issues with not just the women’s groups, but some of the other socially-oriented organizations, questions like protections for people who were in jobs that were at-will employment, that there was no guarantee that you could keep the job because the boss might decide he’d rather have his nephew than you. We did a lot of work on that score. We didn’t get very far, but we tried.

And I worked very closely with people like Lisa Hernandez on making sure that there were protections for people – mostly women – who work as domestics for other people in their own homes. Those people had not had much protection either in the State of Illinois or federally. They were not included in most of the anti-discrimination, fair-wage legislation. So that was another area where I put a lot of my time and energy. And I would say also, as majority leader for the last however many years it was that I was in Springfield, more than 20 years, I was involved in very many issues so that whatever arose to the top was something that I was likely to be involved in. I didn’t get a lot of choice on that score – the majority leader has his or her hands on virtually everything consequential.

KF: Are there things you wish you could have been able to do that stand out, things that didn’t happen?

BFC: I was able to do pretty much what I wanted to do. And as I say, a lot of my time was spent on other people’s business. But that was itself, to me rewarding to be able to help somebody figure out how to do something that he or she thought his or her constituents wanted without interfering with some other interest someplace else. We spent a lot of time in Springfield, and I’m sure this is true in every other legislature, fixing our mistakes. People pass a bill and it sounds great, and then it turns out there’s an unintended consequence. So, you spend the next session mopping up, fixing it, so that it doesn’t any longer cause a problem someplace else.

KF: Did you mentor other women in politics?

BFC: I did, and I actually enjoyed it very much. Part of my role as majority leader was to work with members on both sides of the aisle and from every area of the state. One of the things I really enjoyed was getting to know some of my downstate colleagues who come at issues from a very different perspective from my own. And I worked well with many of the Republicans.

Back to the Equal Rights Amendment for a moment, I’d been a political scientist and had done some work on statistics, and I did a little work on statistics with the Equal Rights Amendment. What was really amazing to me was to look at the votes in the Illinois House and Senate from the time that ratification became possible until the point at which I myself was a member of the legislature. And what you saw was strong bipartisan support in the beginning. You couldn’t tell if somebody was a Democrat because they were a “yes” or a Republican if they voted “no.”

Lots of Republicans were for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and a lot of the city Democrats were not. And over time, that changed very significantly. You saw a big drop off in Republican support, but an increasing level of support from the Democrats, even from the big city. It was just interesting to see how politics was playing out at that time. And it doesn’t mean that I have any answers to the question, why or how do you solve that problem? But it was just interesting to be able to trace it and to know that in Illinois, at least, the change was really dramatic.

KF: What do you think the prospects are for the future?

BFC: I would feel more comfortable if we did not have such a deep polarization between members of the two parties along lines like the Equal Rights Amendment 40 years ago and reproductive rights today. And many of the other issues as well. I think even reasonable efforts of gun control are tougher these days than they used to be because many more moderate Republicans are anxious not to find somebody opposing them in the primary.

And you know at this point, I don’t believe there is a single Republican in the Illinois House who would vote pro-choice. I think the last two were Kay Hatcher, and Tom Cross. When they left the House of Representatives, there was nobody left on the Republican side of the aisle who was willing to give reproductive rights a chance. And that troubles me that the parties are so polarized, so split.

KF: Any advice for young women wanting to go into politics today?

BFC: It’s a lot of fun. You couldn’t ask for a more interesting, more flexible, and more amazing career. And one of the things that made me feel comfortable when I left the legislature in the beginning of 2019, was there were so many wonderful women – and men – who’d come along and who were picking up the cudgels on precisely the issues I cared about, whether it was reproductive rights, or gun control, reforming the criminal justice system, or ensuring equitable funding for public education. My issues didn’t need me anymore. And thank God for that.

KF: Well, thank God, we had you, and still have you active in the community. Barbara, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by VFA Pioneer Histories Project. It’s great to have you be a part of that.

BFC: Well, I thank you, Karen. I always enjoy conversation with you, but this was a particularly fun one and I’m grateful to VFA for making this project happen.