Mandi Jo Hanneke
For me, one of the most frustrating scare tactics being spread by the opposition to the new governance plan is that women will not run for or be elected to the Council.
First, as a woman, I find it offensive. Second, the argument isn’t supported at all by Amherst’s history.
Proponents of this argument look to the other 12 Manager-Council governments in Massachusetts.1 They claim that currently women make up 25% of the membership of the Councils.2
But, the opposition ignores that Amherst is unique in its female representation in government. For example, Amherst has been electing women to town-wide office since the ’70s, if not even earlier.
In the last 10 years, half of the residents elected to Select Board and School Committee have been women (Library Trustees have a slightly more male tilt, but still within 1 standard deviation, so statistically even). Amherst women are not going to suddenly stop running for and being elected to town-wide office, just because we have a Town Council.
To see just how unique Amherst is in this sense, let’s look at a few “comparable” communities: the other five towns in Massachusetts that have a Representative Town Meeting, 5-member Select Board, and Manager, and are similar to Amherst in population.3 First, four of those towns still call it a “Board of Selectmen,” instead of the gender-neutral “Select Board” (Amherst changed the name in the mid-’80s).
More importantly, four of the towns don’t even reach 25% representation of women on the board. Meanwhile, Amherst breaks 50% female representation.
Now let’s look closer at the Manager-Council Towns the opposition keeps comparing us to. Data going far enough back (before a change in government) was only available for two of those towns, East Longmeadow and Randolph. Randolph is particularly instructive because the government switched from a Representative Town Meeting to a Town Council in 2009. (East Longmeadow had Open Town Meeting before its 2016 switch). So, we can look at Randolph’s Select Board and Town Meeting gender balance before the switch and its Town Council gender balance after the switch.
I think the graphs speak for themselves. Randolph’s Select Board elected 2 women and 15 men over nine years, a dismal 12% female representation. Their Town Meeting was better, but still well short of Amherst—38% female, compared with Amherst’s 53% female. After the switch, Randolph has had 7% female representation on its Town Council, a near statistical draw with its Select Board’s female representation (given the sample sizes).
Amherst is awesomely unique in female representation on town-wide elected boards and committees. That won’t change because there’s a Town Council. And if you don’t trust the statistics, because the Town Council is a new body that doesn’t have a history, just look at the Charter Commission: 9 women and 10 men ran, half of each were elected, again matching the Select Board and School Committee on female representation. (In East Longmeadow, 9 people, 1 female and 8 males, ran for 9 slots.)
It’s Amherst. Women run for office. And women get elected. A change in government won’t change that.
1 Opponents only look at 10, skipping Cambridge and Worcester because both of them have “Mayors”, despite the fact that these “Mayors” are Councilors who have no indepedent executive authority.
2 I don’t know how they arrived at the figure. My statistics are based upon election rates over multiple elections. With the smaller sample sizes of council memberships, percentages can be manipulated by looking at the make-up of only one council at one particular time. For example, if you look at the Amherst School Committee now, it is 60% female and 40% male, but just 18 months ago, it was 100% female. Calculating percentages based on multiple elections over many years results in a better long-range view of the trend. I was unable to find more than two election-worth’s of date for 7 of the 10 towns in this figure.
3 Dartmouth, Billerica, Natick, Shrewsbury, and Chelmsford