College of LAS « Illinois

Alumni Profile

Shattering Ceilings

Lynn Martin, former Secretary of Labor, honors women teachers in LAS.

Lynn Martin reception

It was a different world on campus when Lynn Martin attended the University of Illinois in the late 1950s.

Martin does not recall having any woman professors when she was at Illinois, other than her physical education teacher. (P.E. was required at the time.) Female students also had curfews, which the men did not—although as Martin puts it, “A curfew did provide a good excuse to politely end a boring date.”

Because women politicians were rare, Martin says she did not even consider a career in politics when she graduated in 1960 in English, even though she had been highly involved in student politics at Illinois and had minored in political science.

In fact, it wasn’t until 10 years later that she got her first taste of local politics and went on to become one of the most visible leaders among the first wave of women politicians at the national level. During this exhilarating time for women, she served in Congress and as the Secretary of Labor under President George H.W. Bush, and she even considered a run for the presidency in 1996.

With her passion for encouraging women trailblazers, it is no surprise that she chose in 1991 to establish the Lynn M. Martin Award for Distinguished Women Teachers. This year’s winners—Pat Gill in gender and women’s studies and Stephanie Mager in geology—were honored at a ceremony in April. In addition, AT&T presented a contribution to Martin’s teacher’s fund at a May 2 reception in tribute to her career and service on AT&T’s Board of Directors.

Martin was a young mother when she began her career in the early 1960s as a half-time teacher at Wheaton Central and St. Francis high schools, both in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton. When she and her husband picked up stakes and moved to Rockford, they happened to buy a house sandwiched between the Democratic county chairman on one side and a Republican state representative on the other.

Politics was in the air when neighbors would gather in backyards for cheese and crackers, wine, beer, and soft drinks. So, in 1970, she volunteered to work on Betty Ann Keegan’s successful campaign for the state’s constitutional convention, and then she ran for the Winnebago County Board in 1972.

On the night of this first election, she says, “We were having dinner when someone came into the restaurant and told me, ‘I’m sorry, the election was close, but you lost.’ But it turned out that the election was not close, and I had won. From that experience, I learned that it’s a lot more fun to win, but that it’s also a good thing to know what it is to lose. You find that the world goes on. It isn’t just about you.”

As it turned out, Martin didn’t taste defeat very often, as she went on to be elected as state representative, then state senator, and finally as U.S. Representative in the 16th District of Illinois from 1981 to 1991. Winning her first congressional race in 1980 made her a quickly-rising star, for she was one of four Republican women elected that year—more women than had ever been elected to Congress at one time.

“We were on TV a lot because people were astounded by this,” she says. “It was incredibly invigorating. This was a period when people thought that in 10 or 15 years there would be a woman president and half of Congress would be women. That was the excitement of the times, although none of it occurred.”

Martin stood in for Geraldine Ferraro when Vice President Bush was preparing to debate the first female vice presidential candidate. She also became friends with Ferraro and says, “As I once told her, I knew everything about her because I had researched her so thoroughly for the debate.”

President Bush went on to name Martin as Secretary of Labor from 1991 through 1993—a tenure noted for her work on shattering the “glass ceiling,” the iconic symbol for the barriers facing women and other minorities in the workplace. Even after her stint in the cabinet, shattering the glass ceiling became a common theme in her work, as she served as chair of the Council for the Advancement of Women for the accounting firm of Deloitte and Touche.

“These efforts were all business driven,” she says, “because it’s an asset if you have the kind of business in which you hire the best people, regardless of gender or race.”

Martin’s list of credentials goes on, for she has served on many boards, taught at Northwestern and Harvard, and was described by ABC-TV news anchor Ted Koppel as “one of the most skilled politicians in the Republican party.” In 1993, she was even on the short list in the search for a new commissioner of Major League Baseball. Martin is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, despite being raised on the northwest side of Chicago, because her father grew up in St. Louis.

As a teacher at heart and a loyal Illini, she says she is thrilled to recognize the best women undergraduate professors and teaching assistants with her award. She continues to encourage women in all walks of life, meeting regularly with a group of young women professionals, talking about their futures in industry.

“I’m also overwhelmed with great friends and great family,” she says. “I would wish my life on anyone.”

Summer 2013
By Doug Peterson