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Women are taking over leadership of this suburban Philly town for the first time ever

The five-member Upper Gwynedd Township Board of Commissioners will become entirely female — and Democratic — after three women won election this month.

In January, the Upper Gwynedd Township Board of Commissioners will consist of (clockwise from top left) Ruth Damsker, Katherine Carter, Martha Simelaro, Liz McNaney, and Denise Hull.
In January, the Upper Gwynedd Township Board of Commissioners will consist of (clockwise from top left) Ruth Damsker, Katherine Carter, Martha Simelaro, Liz McNaney, and Denise Hull.Read moreDeanna Logan, Upper Gwynedd Township (custom credit)

It’s been said that when women have power, things will be different.

Upper Gwynedd Township in central Montgomery County is about to find out.

When Democrats Martha Simelaro, Katherine Carter, and Ruth Damsker are sworn in to the board of commissioners in January, they’ll replace the three Republican men they defeated this month: Thomas Duffy, Ken Kroberger, and Jim Santi. The women will join incumbent Democratic Commissioners Denise Hull and Liz McNaney.

So for the first time in the town’s history, all of the commissioners will be women.

When they make the town’s laws, two women will execute them: Sandra Brookley Zadell, the township’s first female manager, and Megan Weaver, the assistant manager. So in the new year, women will shape the direction of the community of 16,000 about an hour north of Philadelphia.

“That is certainly a unique circumstance," said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

The clean sweep for Democratic women in Upper Gwynedd, just south of Lansdale, was part of a blue wave that saw Republicans lose control of suburban governments across the Philadelphia region. And they followed a series of victories for women both in Pennsylvania and across the country in the 2018 midterm elections, as Democratic women in particular have increasingly mounted — and won — political campaigns following the election of President Donald Trump.

“I thought it would be great working with these gals to govern in Upper Gwynedd," said South Philly-native and longtime township resident Simelaro, who was a first-time candidate but campaigned with her husband during his unsuccessful runs for county commissioner and state representative. "We did think about [becoming the first all-female board], and we figured it’d be a start. And it’s very exciting.”

For Damsker, it’s a big change from the 2000s, when she was the lone woman — and the only Democrat — on a GOP-controlled Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. It still has one woman out of the three members, but that board went Democratic in 2012.

The Upper Gwynedd commissioners had already hired Brookley Zadell as township manager, an unelected position, in April. "It’s always exciting to be the first,” Brookley Zadell said.

She said she’s seen a shift in her traditionally male-dominated profession since she began her career 13 years ago. At the annual conference of the International City/County Management Association last month, she said, “I noticed there are way more female managers, which is exciting for me."

“As managers, we serve our residents," she said. "And men and women can do an equally good job at that. So I’d like to see us equally represented.”

A majority of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties do not have any women on their governing boards, according to Brown. About 16% of county commissioners and council members were women in 2017. But in January, half of the 14 officials on the governing boards of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties will be women.

Anytime an all-woman governing body is elected, "it is a great image,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. "It’s not a new story, but it’s still a rare story.”

In New Jersey, just over a quarter — 27% — of local council members are women, according to Walsh. Of the mayors in the state’s 565 municipalities, 86, or 15%, are women.

“There’s been a longtime assumption that in local government, there would be so many more women because it’s easier,” she said, noting that local campaigns cost less and there’s no commute to Trenton or Harrisburg.

“In fact, we don’t have a lot of evidence that’s really true," Walsh said. "It’s really not any better at the local level than it is at the state legislature level. That’s one of the challenges.”

Strong party machines in Pennsylvania and New Jersey can make it difficult for women to get on local boards, since they tend to resist newcomers, Walsh said. That makes it harder for women to ascend to higher office, since local positions build a pipeline for candidates in county, state, and federal elections.

As with any type of diversity in leadership roles, new people bring new perspectives and ideas. For example, Walsh said she’s heard about women improving the quality of sidewalks after winning local office, because they are more likely to take care of children and push strollers.

“They’re small things, but they’re the kind of things that shift and change when women are in positions where they’re making decisions about allocating resources,” Walsh said.

Her surveys of state lawmakers have found that both men and women agree female legislators tend to operate more transparently.

After Upper Gwynedd Commissioners Denise Hull and Liz McNaney took office last year, they established office hours for residents to come to them with questions and concerns beyond just the few minutes allotted at meetings for public comment. And they continued the election season practice of knocking on doors to talk with people.

"We realized a lot of residents only see the politicians when they want something from them, when the person campaigning wants their vote,” said Hull, who ran for public office for the first time in 2017.

“We’re really looking forward to being able to collaborate with three very experienced, very diverse ... women," she said. “All five of us are very open to innovation and new perspectives on things that have traditionally been done the same way for many years."

Brookley Zadell, the Upper Gwynedd manager, encourages more women to get involved in politics and government. She studied political science in college, but didn’t know township management was a career until she was a social worker and her boss recommended she pursue a graduate degree in public administration.

“It’s a very enriching career that has something new for you every day,” she said. "It’s a wonderful way to get to help people in your community and to help build communities.”