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Thirty years ago, a female tax lobbyist — a rarity in those days — infiltrated an informal Washington meeting of her male peers.
She stayed. But soon, word circulated that “chicks” were forbidden to hang out with those tax boys of K Street. So outraged female staffers on the Hill formed a sisterhood with lobbyists downtown called the Tax Coalition to serve as a networking lifeline for elite female wonks in the runup to the sweeping tax overhaul enacted in 1986.
On the cusp of another possible major rewrite of the nation’s tax code, the coalition of about 150 today makes up the inner circle of what has become a thriving community of women who will influence the debate on and off Capitol Hill.
“There was almost nobody, no women, involved in serious policy discussions back in 1986, so this is really a huge, huge shift,” said Elaine Kamarck, who co-chairs the corporate tax reform lobby the RATE Coalition.
Rachelle Bernstein, the original gate-crasher, worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce through most of the 1980s and was one of few women deep in the debate then. She said the difference is most noticeable in the number of tax vice presidents working for major companies.
“Back in the mid-’80s, in a room of 30, you might see two women. Maybe,” she said. “Now you might see almost half.”
The shift comes in part because senior female Hill aides have helped blaze a path to K Street from Congress.
Linda Goold, who said she was the first female staffer on the Senate Finance Committee in 1976 and later moved on to lobbying, put it this way: “These young ones, as we say, have no idea.”
Goold, a founding member in 1983 of the Tax Coalition, set up the Washington office for Arthur Andersen in 1979, after leaving the staff of Sen. Clifford P. Hansen, R-Wyo. Despite the slights from the men, she said, the network of women in tax had some built-in advantages.
“During the ’80s, there was an informal practice that the women who worked on Finance, Ways and Means and Joint Tax returned the calls of Tax Coalition members before they returned the calls of anyone else,” said Goold, who is now director of federal taxation with the National Association of Realtors.
Bernstein, who reluctantly told her story, said she didn’t go to the all-male meeting as a sign of feminist defiance but because she was assigned to by her boss. He was a member of the boys’ club and wanted the scoop from that day’s featured guests, senior Hill staff, but he couldn’t make the engagement.
An all-female tax clique was an idea that had been germinating around town for years, she recalled. And her catalyzing moment wasn’t the first time women in the tight-knit sector were turned away from a male operation.
Goold recalled an episode in 1978 when she worked for Hansen. He gave a luncheon address to the then-all-male Metropolitan Club, and in order for Goold to sit in on it, as was typical for a staffer, the organizers set up a separate area for her.
But it was Bernstein’s experience, which has become the stuff of K Street folklore, that sparked the tax chicks on the Hill and in the private sector into action.