PITTSFIELD -- You could say Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods had perfect timing when the grassroots organization burst upon the political scene in Pittsfield: It was spring 2003, six months before the upcoming city elections.
Now, after a decade of compounding influence in local politics, WHEN leaders think the time is right to disband their political action committee. There is less need for the organization today, the women say, as they take time to look back on some startling successes.
The year 2003 was a particularly dysfunctional moment in city government, WHEN Steering Committee Chairwoman Judy Williamson said during a recent interview. "Literally, we had councilors having physical fights, and visitors and our friends elsewhere were seeing the coverage as entertainment," she said. "It was embarrassing."
In addition, as the women who formed WHEN were fully aware, the council and the School Committee that year were 100 percent male, Williamson said, and the second female Pittsfield mayor in a decade appeared very much isolated and opposed at every turn.
"There was so much energy for change," she said.
"Our purpose was the crack the status quo," said steering committee member Mary K. O'Brien. "We saw the actions of some councilors as more interested in power and not in the best interests of the city. They could not come together."
The unofficial name for the new group was, in fact, "We've Had Enough Nonsense!"
The idea for a women's political organization grew from discussions during a Tierney family gathering over Memorial Day weekend 2003, as Jennifer Tierney Stokes, Mary Tierney, Laurie Tierney and others began forming a network of like-minded women.
During the city's Fourth of July Parade that year, WHEN had "a huge group of 50 or 60 women marching, all wearing WHEN T-shirts," Williamson said. "We heard loud cheers all the way."
The outpouring of interest and support seemed immediate, O'Brien said, with more than 200 people regularly attending WHEN events and more than 400 members involved at the peak.
But it was the November 2003 city election that brought the group dramatically to the main stage of local political life. Three women backed by WHEN for the City Council, Pam Malumphy, Linda Tyer (now the city clerk), and Tricia Farley-Bouvier (now a state representative), all won convincingly.
WHEN followed up that success in 2005 and beyond by helping elect women and minority candidates to the School Committee and other offices. Among those benefiting from that support were Kathleen Amuso, Melissa Mazzeo, Christine Yon, Katherine Yon and Churchill Cotton.
A PAC was formed, Tierney Stokes said, "because we needed to have the ability to raise money to support candidates." But the women agreed that, since campaign funding is not often crucial in city elections, it was the support of a large, active and visible organization "always having your back" that really made the difference.
Malumphy, Tyler and Farley-Bouvier all credited WHEN in 2003 with providing inspiration to run for office and a buttress against the feeling of being isolated.
For Farley-Bouvier and other candidates with young children, there was also the worry of what happens to family life if you actually win an election.
"I think this worked because our approach was, ‘we will help you,''' O'Brien said. "We offered to fill in the gaps."
WHEN's electoral successes prompted a flurry of interview requests from major news organizations, including The Boston Globe, and prompted a feature article in Ms. Magazine and a "Wonder Woman" award from the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, among other recognition.
"We also had people constantly calling from other cities, asking us what we had done," O'Brien said. "It really was a notable effort."
Along with backing candidates, the group sponsored debates and forums and other community events, and it began a local cable television interview program that brought new people and issues to the forefront, Williamson said.
While it supported women and minority candidates, WHEN "really didn't have an agenda," O'Brien said. "It was political in the sense we had to have a voice."
There will always be a need to encourage good candidates, especially women and minority candidates, the women said, but the grass-roots energy they tapped 10 years ago has spread throughout the city and is evident in the Westside and Morningside community organizations and a revived NAACP chapter here.
Women and others now "feel empowered personally," O'Brien said, and aren't as reluctant to step into the political fray. Community leaders are more likely to run for office, she said, and the average citizen feels he or she can approach city officials with issues or problems. And a new generation of activists is emerging.
Even if political leaders again become out of touch, Williamson said, "they know that someone will be there -- if it is not our group -- to set them straight."
To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247