NORTH ADAMS — In November 1983, Frances Buckley tried to become the first woman in the mayor’s office in the city.
She had made history before: In January 1981, she became the first woman to hold the position of president of the City Council, according to reporting at the time in the Transcript newspaper.
But, she lost the mayoral bid. John Barrett III won the election with about 61 percent of the vote, and the next day, Buckley told the Transcript that gender played a role in the election.
“There were some people who couldn’t vote for a woman,” she said. “It was the psyche of some people, not the whole city.”
Added Buckley: “I felt it shouldn’t be a female-male thing; the person that’s qualified should get the job.”
Nearly 40 years later, the city still has not had a woman in the mayor’s office.
That soon will change, with only women — Lynette Bond and Jennifer Macksey — on the general election mayoral ballot in November.
Women vying for the mayor’s office now, and those who have run, say it’s about time a woman leads the city.
“It’s really exciting for me to think that we’re finally going to have a woman [as] mayor,” Buckley said in September, on the eve of the preliminary election, while sitting in her North Adams living room.
The majority of the 39 cities in the commonwealth already have had a woman in the mayor’s office. Pittsfield, the only other city in the county, had its first woman in the mayor’s office when Anne Everest Wojtkowski served from 1988 to 1992. The milestone recently was achieved in some places, like Boston — in March, Kim Janey became the first woman and the first person of color to hold the office.
“Women in leadership,” Macksey said, “that’s important. That’s important. But, for me, my main goal is moving the city forward.”
Macksey said a woman in the office could inspire others. “I’m going to retire someday. Maybe a young girl would want to be mayor. I think it’s inspiring.”
It is “pretty shocking” the city hasn’t yet had a woman at the helm, Bond said. One reason she thinks it took so long: One person, Barrett, was in the mayor’s office for 26 years.
“I think that was one of the issues,” Bond said. “But, I think it’s time. It’s time for the city to look forward. It’s time we do things differently. I think women can do that and can raise the bar and make the necessary improvements that we need to within our city.”
Bond, a member of the Planning Board, said she was asked to join that body. “I think for a lot of women, it’s just being asked to step up.”
Branch is not surprised that a woman has not been elected mayor in the city.
“Not at all,” she said, adding that it is “because of the patriarchal systems in this city and our country.”
Representation is important, she said. “It matters for women’s equality. It matters because we haven’t got equal representation in our city, commonwealth or country.”
For Branch, identity is not enough, though.
“I’ve seen it — women elected because they are women and then they are running the same kind of agenda a man is doing and holding up a patriarchal system,” she said.
“I want people to vote for me because of my background and my experience and care for the residents of North Adams. But, not just because I’m a woman,” she said before the preliminary election.
Branch’s most recent campaign was her third bid for mayor, and she said the other candidates, who are running for their first time, “they are standing on my shoulders. Not just my shoulders ... all the women who have been fighting for women’s equality for years.”
She pointed to Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress. Branch said she stands on the shoulders of Chisholm and women like her.
“Every woman who made steps to run for office,” she said, “I stand on their shoulders.”
‘It’s about time’
Samantha Pettey, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, researches women running for office. She is not shocked that a woman never has been elected as the city’s mayor.
“Sadly, no,” she said.
Across the country, women make up about one-fourth of the mayors leading cities with a population larger than 30,000, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a part of Rutgers University.
“I think we’re actually pretty on par,” Pettey said of North Adams. “No one is doing quite well.”
In Massachusetts, most mayors don’t have term limits, Pettey said, which can be a barrier.
“That’s really impeded women,” she said. If there is a man who is a popular mayor, “it’s easy to keep electing that same male into office,” she said.
In the 1990s, more women ran for office in the wake of Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Pettey said. “Women were outraged Anita Hill wasn’t taken seriously. That boosted women running for office.”
In 2018, there was an additional bump.
“It’s attributed to Donald Trump running for office and his language around women,” said Pettey, who also pointed to the 2017 Women’s March as inspiration for some. “We’re still seeing that — we will see how long this boost lasts.”
In North Adams, whoever wins the mayoral election will serve as a role model, Pettey said. ”Girls in North Adams can look at them and say, ‘Oh, I have a female mayor.’ That immeasurable role model effect is important for future generations.”
Martha Coakley, the first woman to become Massachusetts’ attorney general, has felt that effect. She grew up in North Adams, and she doesn’t remember having women in political positions of power in the city to look up to.
When she graduated from Williams College in 1975, U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, the first woman from the Deep South elected to Congress, spoke at the event.
“That’s part of what got me into government and public policy,” Coakley said. “I finally saw someone who was a woman and who ran successfully for Congress. That opened up a window I hadn’t seen before.”
She added: “As more women run and win, more woman say, ‘Hey, I could do that, too.’”
Why did it take North Adams so long?
“I don’t think it’s different from any other city or town in Massachusetts, or frankly in the rest of the country,” Coakley said. Incumbency is one reason, she said, pointing to Barrett, who served for more than two decades, and Richard Alcombright, who served four terms. She has seen the culture change in the past 20 years, with more women in politics.
“Women have been getting on the bench,” Coakley said. “They’ve been running for city council. They’ve been running for other municipal and state offices.”
But, instead of looking at why it took so long in North Adams, she is focused on another thought: “This is good news. It’s about time. I think you’ll see more and more women being successful as each two- and four-year periods go by.”
Buckley stands by her 1983 interview in the Transcript and still feels that some people were not ready to vote for a woman when she ran.
“That’s what I tell myself is the reason I wasn’t elected,” she said.
She served several terms on City Council, and did not try to run again for mayor.
Women had been in leadership positions in City Hall. Faith Carley, for example, was the first woman to ever sit on the North Adams City Council, when she was elected in 1923, according to a December 1923 article in the Transcript.
“Women were part of the government. But, there were very few women,” Buckley said.
Across Berkshire County, women make up about 20 percent of mayors, select board members and city councilors.
In the town where Susan B. Anthony was born, just six women have ever served on the Board of…
Still, when Buckley got involved in politics in the 1950s, the climate was different than it is today, she said.
“Women were then the envelope stuffers. They were not the people who ran for office. And now, women are the ones who are running,” she said. “You look everywhere, and women are sort of running everything, it seems like.”