Follow the Leader
Retiring legislator fought for women and the working class
By Christie Chisholm
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Danice Picraux is a pioneer, but don’t let her catch you saying that. Born, as she says, at the “head of the baby boom” in 1946, she was raised in the aftershock of World War II. It was a time when, like a rubber band pulled too taut, the nation snapped back to traditional gender roles. The United States fled from the cultural phenomenon of women working during wartime. Returning to pre-war gender norms with a glaze of extremism, the ’50s model of the powdered, curled and aproned white housewife was born.
The women’s movement was forged with great force and small steps. Picraux took a few of them herself. She’s served as a state legislator in the 25th district for 22 years. She was the first female caucus whip in half a century and then the first female majority leader in New Mexico’s Democratic party. During her time in office, she lobbied for women’s rights and equality. She is a staunch supporter of abortion rights, and she made domestic violence a crime for the first time in the state’s history.
Her accomplishments span far beyond women’s issues, as she shepherded groundbreaking school finance legislation and ushered in many of the health care bills of the last two decades—including those that provide Medicaid and other coverage to low-income residents. She also fought for green technology and a living wage.
“People used to ask, ‘Does your husband support you in this?’ And, ‘How are you going to bring up your kids?’ ”
But ask Picraux about her accolades and victories, and she’ll hesitate. “It’s hard to say these things and not sound like you’re building yourself up,” she says. Picraux doesn’t want to brag. She has proven her leadership for more than two decades, but she doesn’t really want to talk about it.
Yet this seems like the perfect time to bring it up. Because after holding onto that House seat through 11 election cycles, Picraux has decided to retire from the Legislature.
She got her start in politics at the age of 10 in New York City, where she was born. She remembers standing shoulder-to-hip with “the union dudes” handing out Adlai Stevenson for President leaflets in 1956. They eventually just gave her the remaining stack and walked away, leaving her to campaign solo. On Election Day, a couple of family members had fallen ill, but she remembers insisting that they to get to the booths.
“My mother was a ward leader,” she says, reflecting on the origins of her love for the democratic process. “My mother was born about 1916. There was World War I, then the Nazi era and the Depression. The Democratic Party and Franklin Roosevelt became very important. Somehow it’s in our blood.”
Even though Picraux says politics “not only held a fascination but a magnetism,” she never considered entering the field as a young woman. While pursuing a biology major at New York University, though, she stumbled upon a political science class that lit her up. She eventually minored in it, “but I took enough for it to be a major,” she adds with a smile. She went on to receive a Ph.D. in international relations from Claremont Graduate University. Her thesis was on the intersection of American farm policy and the creation of Israel.
Somewhere in the mix, she got married, moved to New Mexico when her husband found a job at Sandia National Laboratories and had three daughters. It wasn’t until 1990 that Picraux considered running for office, and the only reason she did was because a friend suggested it. Susan Loubet is one of the founders of Ms. magazine and at the time was involved with New Mexico’s Democratic caucus. They met in the kitchen at a children’s party, she says, and the two quickly became friends. When a seat on the caucus opened, Loubet convinced Picraux to run. That’s why Picraux refers to herself, tongue planted in cheek, as “a woman in the kitchen who just fell into this.”
“Social change is like that. It’s not like someone writes the script.”
The first race was close, with a handsome male opponent with “the best 60-second knock in the business,” Picraux says. She beat him by a mere 101 votes.
In that initial quest for election, and in the races that followed, Picraux would often get asked strange questions when knocking door-to-door. “People used to ask, ‘Does your husband support you in this?’ And, ‘How are you going to bring up your kids?’ ” she says. Even in the early ’90s, it was a mindset that didn’t surprise her. “We didn’t have a workplace where women were the way they are now,” she says. “We didn’t have a Hillary Clinton back then.”
Today, although women still fight for equity in pay and treatment, “the whole quality, the texture has changed,” she says. Picraux witnessed that shift and benefitted from it, she adds. “On the other hand, I was there and helped it change.”
It’s that last point, though, that Picraux seems to realize as she’s saying it. Although she’s spent her political career battling for women philosophically, through legislation and in practice, she still says, “I never thought of myself as a change agent.” Reflecting on how women’s roles in society have shifted and how the transformation took place, she adds, “You don’t feel it; you just do it. ... Social change is like that. It’s not like someone writes the script.”
Today Picraux’s daughters are grown, and all three of them are either studying or working in fields that not long ago were difficult for women to enter. “I’ve got an engineer. I’ve got a chemist. Soon I’ll have a geneticist,” she says. Her daughters are also the reason she’s decided to retire. With their families congregating in Southern California, Picraux and her husband have decided to join them. But Picraux likely won’t be out of the game for long. “Clearly, neither my husband nor I are stay-at-home folks who watch television,” she says. “Some way or another, we’ll be involved.”
Even after two decades in politics, Picraux hasn’t lost her love for the process. In fact, she speaks of it as though saying goodbye—even if only for a little while—is like leaving an old friend, one you’ve grown to admire more with time. “Politicians verbalize your hopes and dreams,” she says. “And we try to make them come true.”
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