Evelyn Lord: Breaking the glass ceiling

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Story by Lauren Hollon Sturdy
Photography by Chelsea Quackenbush

Evelyn Lord is the kind of woman smart little girls want to be when they grow up. She’s had it all: a long and loving marriage, an illustrious career, five children and countless adventures along the way.

Today she calls Calder Woods in Beaumont home, and most people there know her as the former mayor of that city. In fact, she was Beaumont’s first “woman mayor,” according to a 1994 article in the Houston Chronicle, and she knows well how far women have come in politics. She helped break that glass ceiling.

A woman’s place


She grew up listening to narrow views of a woman’s place. Her father, an Austrian-born immigrant, believed women’s lives should be devoted to three things: “Kinder, Küche, Kirche,” or “children, kitchen, church.”

Evelyn’s traditional New England mother didn’t approve of her interest in “dirty politics,” either. So when Evelyn won her first political victory—she was elected class president in college—she lost her allowance for three months.

“When I was elected a state senator in Delaware a few years later, they wouldn’t come and see me sworn in,” she said. “They did send me a present, though. It was my grandfather’s ‘Vote NO on Woman Suffrage’ button. I give courses in communication, and there’s a communication for you.”

The button became a charm she faithfully pinned under her collar each day. She kept her hand on it when she spoke on the floor of the state Senate, imagining what her grandfather would think if he could see her there.

“I know they worried about me, because politics was dirty back then, especially in New York and Boston, where the mafia was involved,” she said. “And especially since I was a mother with little children.”

It took years, but her parents eventually came around and said she made them proud.

 

Married bliss


Her husband, Sam, had a more progressive view of women’s roles. He didn’t see himself as the head of the house. Evelyn didn’t see herself as the head, either. Instead, a sense of partnership defined their marriage. They sacrificed for each other and made each other’s goals a priority throughout their life together.

They met in 1945 and married young. Sam graduated from Tufts University with a degree in chemical engineering and had a good job as a chemist at a DuPont lab in New Jersey while Evelyn worked as a bookkeeper. After a little more than a year, Evelyn convinced Sam to leave his job and pursue the dream he thought he’d given up: to earn his doctorate from MIT. They moved to Massachusetts and had their first two children.

Sam graduated in 1952 and DuPont wanted him back in their labs. They moved to Delaware, where Evelyn had three more children, spent five years taking night classes to earn a master’s degree and became the president of a new chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Her work with the League attracted the notice of both Republicans and Democrats and led to her election to the Delaware State Senate. Evelyn served from 1962 to 1964—she was one of only 33 female state senators across the entire U.S. at the time—and Sam started catching flack at work over his wife’s budding career.

“His colleagues would send him things through the mail addressed to ‘Mr. Evelyn Lord’ – not ‘Dr. Samuel Lord,’ but ‘Mr. Evelyn,’” she said. “And I’d say, ‘Honey, doesn’t that bother you?’ And he said, ‘No, that’s not my problem, that’s their problem.’ He was very supportive of me.”

When DuPont transferred Sam to Kentucky right after Evelyn lost a close race for mayor of Wilmington, Del., she decided to take some time to get her law degree at the University of Louisville. She had Sam’s full support and together they arranged their lives so that she could attend classes, even with five children ranging in age from first grade to a senior in high school.

“That was when Sam was so wonderful,” she said. “I would get up at 4 a.m. to go to the law school early and do my homework. He would get the kids up and on the school bus, and I was home from classes in time for the kids when they’d get home from school.”

She graduated from law school in 1969 and two years later DuPont sent them to Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Even in a foreign country, Evelyn found ways to get involved. She provided meals to shut-ins, volunteered at a local hospital, chaired a local Save the Children group and wrote a weekly column for an American newspaper.

In the mid-70s they moved to Beaumont where Sam was a plant manager and Evelyn served two terms on the city council. Just as she began making plans for her first campaign for mayor of Beaumont, Sam got word that he was being transferred back to Northern Ireland. He felt terrible about the move and nearly retired so Evelyn could stay, but she reassured him and they moved across the Atlantic again.

They returned to Beaumont after Sam retired in 1988 and Evelyn finally had her chance to run for mayor. She served three two-year terms and one one-year term between 1990 and 2004. She and Sam also served together on dozens of boards, committees and councils through their years in Beaumont.

“I’ve been an extremely fortunate woman,” she said. “I know I have been. We each married a person who got more from the other than they really expected. In my family, my father was dominant. In his family, his mother was sickly and so his father did all of the household work. So I expected to have to do a lot more and he didn’t expect me to do as much as I did.

“I remember one example from when we were dating that really says it all. He came over to my house one Saturday to find me on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor and said, ‘What are you doing? You have a brother!’ And he rolled up his sleeves and finished the floor. That was Sam.”

They were happily married for 63 years, until he died in May 2011.

 

 

‘You get what you’re looking for’


Though her days in politics are over, public service runs in Evelyn’s blood. Today she serves on 14 boards and averages three board meetings a week.

Her wisdom and experience make her indispensable to the boards of The United Way, The Salvation Army, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America councils, the Evelyn M. Lord Teen Court, and many other foundations, committees, museums and organizations. At the same time, she said she knows when to sit back and let the next generation of leaders do their thing.

“I’ve been president of most of the boards I’m on, so now its kind of fun just to sit there and practice keeping my mouth shut,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard. Because really and truly, you see history repeating itself. And you try not to tell them, ‘You’re going to be sorry if you do that, because that isn’t going to work!’ because I’ve learned that sometimes it does work for somebody else. Things change. Young people have new ways of looking at things, and sometimes it’s just time for us to sit back and, when asked, give some advice.”

Of course, her life isn’t all work and no play. She and her cat have an afternoon ritual that lets them enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures.

“For rest and relaxation – this may sound crazy – at 4 o’clock every afternoon I sit down and watch ‘Judge Judy.’ She says the most awful things. If anybody ever acted like that on the bench, they’d be tossed out quick. As a lawyer, I find it hilarious. And the cat always comes at 4 and sits on my lap and covers me with cat hair. That’s my R&R for the day.”

She plans to write a memoir some day and there’s no doubt it would be a riveting read with her tales of sexism in politics, IRA bombings at her local grocery store in Ireland and volunteer missions with Radio Free Europe in East Berlin, just to name a few. Until then, she continues doing what she does best—finding places where she can contribute and ways to make her community better.

“They always ask you about glass ceilings and whatnot. I think you get what you’re looking for.”

 

Comments

Jessica says:
Awesome lady! At the age of 91, she's still an inspiration!

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