BOOK REVIEW | winter 2003
Massachusettes Grassroots Effort Remakes City Hall
“People would say, ‘It’s Tuesday night, let’s watch City Council!’” says Jennifer Tierney Stokes, 42, director of a child abuse program. “Even friends from out of town wanted to watch.”
No one on the council swallowed live tomato worms or learned his woman lover was actually a man, but the meetings had grown so contentious and trivia-mired that longtime residents were embarrassed. “We love Pittsfield, and we didn’t want to be the brunt of jokes,” says Stokes of the picturesque Berkshire burg of about 50,000, just 30 minutes down the road from where Susan B. Anthony was born.
At a Memorial Day picnic this year, Stokes and her sister-in-law, Laurie Tierney, decided to do something about it. Before you can say “grassroots,” the political novices had cajoled friends and neighbors into joining WHEN—Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods—a political-action committee dedicated to “a progressive and diverse city government that operates with integrity.”
Victorious members of WHEN
Photo by Jan Sturmann
With a city council election coming up, and crucial issues about business development, education and public safety on the table, WHEN recruited and backed a slate of three female candidates. Although the mayor is a woman, none of the 11 council members then were. “As women we know what the roadblocks are, and we felt we could remove those obstacles,” says Judy Williamson, 44, a WHEN steering-committee member who runs a school for pregnant and parenting teenagers.
WHEN offered their candidates—schoolteacher Tricia Farley-Bouvier, arts development consultant Pam Malumphey, and school administrative assistant Linda Tyer—financial and campaign support. But they also offered homemade dinners on meeting nights, rides for their kids to lessons or soccer practice, and research assistance on city issues. WHEN promised to maintain the extracurricular support after the women were elected—and that’s what convinced mother-of-three Farley-Bouvier to run.
Not all WHEN women and men (there’s a male auxiliary, Men for WHEN) call themselves feminists, but Stokes and Williamson, who do, point out that much of their community tends to be retro on questions of gender. In fact, Williamson heard some women voters huffily say, “I wouldn’t support a woman candidate just because she’s a woman.”
But on the day of the September primary, with volunteers braving a wind-driven rain, all three WHEN candidates advanced to the finals. On November 4, they won election, as every contested incumbent was ousted.
In the future, WHEN expects to support men as well as women and to recruit candidates from the town’s African American, Latino, and Russian immigrant communities. Meanwhile, Stokes has high hopes for the new council: less bickering, more research and more openness to outside-the-box ideas.
“And I hope they’ll stop talking about diagonal parking,” she says. “There’s one councilman who’s been talking about diagonal parking for about 150 years.”