it takes, I'm going to be making laws here someday!"
Denison Howell '66 was
testifying before a Virginia House of Delegates committee about
improving Virginia's social- services department, which was mishandling
the state child- support system, when she realized she had to
get into politics.
was trying to tell the Courts of Justice Committee in Richmond
what we needed to make the new system work," recalls Howell, then
an assistant to a member of the House of Delegates. "Nobody was
listening to me, and in the middle of it, I heard this male voice
say, 'Why do these women need child support? They all get alimony.'"
and there, Howell decided: "Whatever it takes, I'm going to be
making laws here someday."
No stranger to politics, Howell had majored in government, then
spent 15 years working as a community volunteer on dozens of causes--like
establishing a homeless shelter in Reston, Virginia, where she
lives with her husband, classmate and economist Hunt Howell, and
their two sons. "I realized that for everything I was trying to
accomplish, I had to go to elected officials for help," she says.
"It slowly occurred to me that I could be an elected official."
1991, she won an open seat in the Virginia State Senate, a Democrat
elected in a Republican enclave. Re-elected twice, Howell, a moderate
to liberal on most topics, is known for her tenacious attempts
to pass gun-control legislation in her conservative, largely pro-gun
state, and for her defense of abortion rights, which are frequently
assaulted by the Virginia Assembly. But rather than discouraged,
Howell is invigorated by the opposition. "I'm a little unusual
in that I am satisfied with incremental change," she muses. "I've
learned how important it is to stop nonsense, not only to make
things better, but to keep them from getting worse. Sometimes
maintaining the status quo is a success."
One of a handful of women in the Senate, Howell has also crafted
bills to overhaul Virginia's domestic- abuse and stalking laws.
And as vice chair of the Commission on the Prevention of Sexual
Assault from 1994 to 1999, she helped draft Virginia's Megan's
Law, which requires the state to identify sex offenders to the
public via an Internet registry site. "It's a tough balancing
act between the rights of the people who've been convicted and
the rights of children to know [about these people] and be protected,"
she says. "We found a balance by making it a crime to harass
or intimidate anyone listed on the Internet for this."
While on the commission, she made national headlines when she
told a reporter she'd been sexually assaulted by a stranger
outside her grammar school when she was 6. Although the media
portrayed her as a woman whose own experience led to her crusade,
the truth was more complicated. "I did not want to be involved
in the sexual violence issue," Howell recalls. "I didn't know
if I was strong enough to deal with it impartially."
It was pure coincidence that she was appointed to the commission
by a senior senator who believed there should be a female voice
in drafting laws that would affect women. She felt responsible
for providing that voice. But she dreaded wading into a subject
she'd put firmly behind her. Initially, Howell didn't tell anyone
about her experience. But gradually she felt compelled to reveal
it. "I was asking other people who'd been victims to come forward
and give me advice on the law," she says. "How could I be so
hypocritical as not to say that it had happened to me?"
Howell even invited a convicted pedophile into her home. ("My
husband really thought I'd lost it that time," she recalls with
a laugh.) She quizzed the man on what he thought should be in
the law and how society could help him avoid committing his
work has helped others and empowered her. "It helped me realize
that it wasn't my fault. I've gotten a lot of satisfaction working
so that it doesn't happen to other kids," she says. "And now
I'm the one putting these offenders on the Internet."