Barbara Flynn Currie reflects on historic 40-year career in Illinois legislature

Pioneering alum and House leader from Hyde Park helped pave way for women to serve

If a single day could be said to have spanned the spectrum of Barbara Flynn Currie’s experience as an elected official, it might have been Dec. 15, 2008. At 10 a.m., as a member of the Electoral College, she cast her ballot for Barack Obama, who once served alongside her in the Illinois legislature. Two hours later she announced an impeachment investigation into then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich by an Illinois House panel, which she would lead.

“It was the high and the low,” she said.

During her 40 years in the Illinois House of Representatives, Currie, LAB’58, AB’68, AM’73, broke new ground as a pioneering lawmaker, crossing paths with every significant political figure in the state. She served with six governors before retiring this past January, and as House majority leader for more than 20 years, she helped pass bills that established a state-earned income tax credit, outlawed the death penalty and legalized gay marriage.

It’s quite an influential career for someone who fell into politics almost by chance.

Currie grew up mostly in Hyde Park; her father, Frank Flynn, PhD’49, taught in UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration. She enrolled at the University in 1958 but left in 1959 and married David P. Currie, AB’57, a distinguished professor in the University of Chicago Law School until his death in 2007.

Between David’s last year of law school at Harvard and clerkships, the couple didn’t return to Chicago until 1962, when David began teaching at the University. By then they had a two-year-old son, Stephen, who was soon joined by a daughter, Margaret.

“So I did finally finish college,” Currie said, “but slowly, on the motherhood plan.”

Although she followed her undergraduate degree at UChicago with a master’s in political science, Currie wasn’t interested in an academic career. She was politically active—the Flynn family had always talked about current events around the dinner table—but never considered running for anything.

Then one day in 1978, she ran into Chicago attorney and activist Michael Shakman, AB’62, AM’64, JD’66. Bob Mann, who represented the 24th District in the Illinois House, had recently announced his retirement. Currie asked Shakman, whose campaign she had worked on when he ran for constitutional convention delegate, whether he planned to run for Mann’s seat.

“No,” he said. “Why don’t you?”

“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.