When Rep. Lois Frankel was growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., in the 1950s, “it was a strange time,” the Florida Democrat said.
There were very strong stereotypes about boys and girls. The message for girls was one we’ve all heard: Grow up, get married and have children. Frankel knew very few mothers who had careers. Divorce was out of the question. She calls it the “pink and blue time.”
The Long Island public school she attended helped. When it came to team sports and activities, they offered girls the same opportunities as boys. Frankel embraced it, and her parents let their daughter be herself. She was a Girl Scout, and the self-proclaimed tomboy played everything from stick ball to flag football to golf. To protect her brother, who would often get picked on, she remembers “standing on her front lawn with a baseball bat to ward off the street bullies.”
“I had every opportunity that a young man would have, other than the fact that I couldn’t play in Little League, which really would make me feel terrible when I saw my brother striking out at his games,” Frankel said, adding, “I knew I could do so much better.”
Frankel eventually took that confidence and fighter’s spirit to Boston University, where she became the vice president of the student body. Often outfitted in a sweatshirt and bell bottoms, Frankel protested the Vietnam War and got involved in the women’s movement. There was a lot to fight for. Birth control wasn’t legal for all women, and the Supreme Court had yet to rule on Roe v. Wadeby the time Frankel graduated in 1970.
“There were a lot of things that were almost unimaginable for people today,” Frankel said. Although more women began to enter the workforce after each war — namely World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War — they still weren’t even able to get credit on their own.
“It’s sad for me to see,” Frankel continued. “There are so many things that we fought for back then that we are still having to fight for now. We’re still fighting for pay equity. We’re still fighting for full access to health care. If you look at the development of women’s rights over the years, you have to think, ‘What changed?’”
The congresswoman is the chair of the Democratic Women’s Working Group (DWWG). Since the election of President Trump, the group has focused on making sure women’s rights aren’t going backward and moving forward in areas like paid family leave, health care and affordable child care. Frankel is also vice chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, where wages and jobs are core issues.
“[We need] to have a workplace that accommodates real life,” Frankel said.
“When I left [undergrad], I had sort of protested myself into a dither, where I said to myself, ‘This is it: One day I’m going to get myself into the establishment and let them protest me,’” Frankel said. “I’m going to try to change government from inside.”
But before becoming mayor of West Palm Beach and serving 14 years in the Florida state legislature, Frankel worked full time as a lawyer after completing her juris doctorate in 1973 at Georgetown Law in Washington.
Although the university had a large class, Frankel remembers the percentage of women being extremely small.
After graduating, she moved to Florida and became a public defender before moving into private practice. At that firm, she was the only woman out of 25 men. Frankel’s son, Benjamin, was still young.
“The men had wives, and they all had children,” Frankel recalled. “I also had a child, but when I started to work, I said, ‘I’m leaving at 5 o’clock because I have a kid at home, and I’m going to raise him.’ The men didn’t leave at 5 o’clock.”
Frankel understands how difficult it is to be a young parent, she said, especially when an employer doesn’t offer leeway. She considers herself “fortunate because I was in a situation where they sort of got it. Sort of. Sort of.”
She later divorced from her husband, and although he was a “great father,” the challenges of parenthood remained the same as they are today.
“When you wake up, you’re ready to go to work but your child has an earache or is running a fever, what are you supposed to do?” Frankel asked. “If you’re very, very lucky, you have a family member around or a babysitter or some kind of resource, but it’s hard.”
Being a mother inspired Frankel to focus on childcare issues after she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1986. She worked on making childcare more affordable, and honed in on initiatives surrounding child abuse and maternal health. In 2000, she became the first female Democratic minority leader.
Several years later, before running for Congress in 2012, a group of community members in Palm Beach asked her to run for mayor. She agreed, and said the experience was like having a fresh canvas to paint on every day. But it could get ugly.
“We were doing a lot of infrastructural changes that some people resisted,” Frankel said. “They were suing me. I could not believe the protests.”