“I grew up in the benighted 1950s,” said Currie, “when there weren’t very many women in public office, and those who were generally inherited the job.” But her children were nearly grown, and after consulting with family and with friends in local politics, she said, “we decided to go for it.”
She won, “though not real handily,” and entered a new world.
At the time women made up just 13% of the Illinois General Assembly, but “there were enough of us to make people feel as if they had a responsibility to be doing good things for women.” She remembers male legislators who would cite their support of a specific domestic violence bill while refusing to support the Equal Rights Amendment.
She also noticed that male legislators seemed relieved to let her and other women take the lead on bills addressing sexual harassment, maternity leave, and other so-called women’s issues, about which Currie was passionate. “People were really helpful with figuring out what legislation I might be interested in,” she said, “but it was also fair to say that they were delighted to get rid of the ‘girl bills’ when they saw the girl.”
Currie was known for her diligent preparation to present a bill—a habit she acquired at UChicago. “You did learn to establish arguments for and against your position. And to me that was extremely valuable.”
When Currie became House majority leader in 1997, women made up just 26% of the Illinois General Assembly. The reaction of women in the capitol—across party lines—was unanimous, “whether they were secretaries, lobbyists or whatever,” Currie said. “They could not have been more pleased with the fact that one of us made it. Because if one of us makes it, we all do.”
In retirement, Currie hopes to be remembered for her honesty, fair-mindedness and ability to see other perspectives. Christian Mitchell, AB’08, a former representative of Illinois’s 26th District who’s now a deputy governor of Illinois, used to drive Currie back to Chicago from Springfield legislative sessions. He considers her “the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life”—and one with a sense of humor. “Even in the most difficult floor debate, while someone is hurling invective at her,” Mitchell said, “she’d smile and disarm the person with her amazing wit.”
In turn, Mitchell and the newest group of incoming legislators make Currie hopeful for the future of politics, even as she laments the current climate of polarization.
“I would never have been in politics all these years,” she said, “if I had not been an optimist.”
—Adapted from a story that first appeared in The University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.