Betty Taymor helped both John F. Kennedy and his brother Ted Kennedy campaign before she helped hundreds of women enter politics

By Sean Neumann
June 09, 2021 05:45 PM
betty taymor
Betty Taymor
| Credit: Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy/Facebook

Betty Taymor, a former Kennedy campaign aide who became a leading advocate for women in politics in America, died last Tuesday at her home in Massachusetts, her family told The Boston Globe. She was 100.

In a statement on Friday, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's widow remembered her as "a legend, a trailblazer and role model for women" across the country.

"She not only was politically active, she also was savvy, always knowing how to get things done," Victoria Reggie Kennedy said.

"My husband talked often about the winning difference Betty made by supporting him when he first ran for the United States Senate," Victoria, 67, continued. "Throughout his career, he cherished her advice and her friendship."

Betty Bernstein married Melvin Lester Taymor in 1942 and had three children: Michael Taymor, Laurie Taymor-Berr and Academy Award-nominated film and theater director Julie Taymor. (Melvin, a gynecologist, died in 1998.)

A funeral for Taymor was scheduled for Wednesday, Julie told PEOPLE.

"I was so proud of her," Julie, 68, says. "She was a role model for me as well as for many, many women. With me, she was very freeing."

Betty first campaigned for future President John F. Kennedy in 1960 before joining his brother Ted's Senate campaign in 1962.

The latter Kennedy went on to serve nearly 47 years in the Senate - one of the longest congressional tenures in American history - before he died in 2009 from brain cancer.

Betty told the Edward M. Kennedy Institute that she first became interested in politics during the 1940s, when President Harry S. Truman was campaigning for the White House.

She said she "got more and more active" in local and state politics throughout the next decade, supporting John F. Kennedy's 1952 Senate campaign and later helping his presidential campaign.

In 1968, Betty founded the Program for Women in Politics and Government - now housed at the University of Massachusetts at Boston - with the goal of improving women's education and ultimately increasing women's representation in American politics.

Betty unsuccessfully ran twice for Congress, which daughter Julie says helped fuel her life's work of inspiring hundreds of other women to enter the political arena.

"She had all kinds of adversarial stoppages and pitfalls in her life, but she would round the corner and find another way," Julie says.

betty taymor
From left: Betty Taymor, daughter Julie Taymor, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and daughter Laurie Taymor-Berr
| Credit: Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy/Twitter

Betty wrote a memoir in 2000, Running Against the Wind, about hurdles women faced in Massachusetts politics.

"Eleanor Roosevelt had said 'you've got to have the wind behind you,' but a lot of women in particular have not had the wind behind them helping them through," Julie says now.

"They've had to run against the wind, and I think that my mother really inspired me that way," Julie adds. "You don't necessarily just do the easy route. You do the route you really want to take and you need to take."

Betty celebrated her 100th birthday in March and was honored at the time by prominent figures like Gloria Steinem as well as Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Sen. Ed Markey and other Massachusetts lawmakers.

"She would've been a great senator," Julie says. "When I look at Nancy Pelosi, I see my mom. I see that kind of energy and that kind of intelligence and wicked wit from time to time. She would've been like that."

Victoria said in her statement Friday that The Betty Taymor Fund for the Education of Women in Politics & Government at the university has granted more than 200 scholarships to women.

According to Betty's biography, her university program now has "nearly 1,000 alumnae ... a diverse, international group of women who have gone on to distinguished careers in government, non-profit organizations, and academia."

"What a future Betty Taymor has made for us," Victoria said. "Generations of additional women have been inspired by Betty's example and call to be involved."

Betty said in a March statement marking her 100th birthday that "back in the day, the few women who were successful in the political arena often climbed the ladder alone."

"Today, women are climbing together and not just ladders, but mountains, breaking more and more barriers along the way," Betty said then. "I am thrilled by what I see and humbled to have contributed in some small way to that progress."

After her death this week, women's rights advocates and longtime colleagues shared tributes to the prominent Massachusetts political figure on social media.

"Betty was a true visionary, ahead of her time in her belief that we all benefit from having women political leaders," said Barbara Lee, the founder of the eponymous Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which advocates for more women's representation in politics.

"She and I were kindred spirits and cheerleaders for each other," Lee added. "She made a tremendous impact, and she will always be in my heart."

Victoria said the Kennedy family "will never forget" Betty, calling her "a wonderful friend and dedicated citizen." 

"On behalf of the Kennedy Institute and the Kennedy Family, I offer deepest sympathy to Betty's loving family," Victoria said. "Thank you for sharing her with the rest of us for all these years."