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Montgomery Township Defies the Odds When It Comes to Electing Women as Mayors

By Rebecca Koblin and Barbara A. Preston | March 17, 2022


The numbers are grim. Some may be surprised to learn that women hold only 18 percent of the 565 mayor titles throughout New Jersey — on average.


Montgomery Township defies the odds by electing more women to serve as mayor than most.

Montgomery Township Mayor Devra Kennan

Devra Keenan (pictured above) is the 11th woman to serve as mayor in the history of Montgomery Township.


Eleven. That may sound like a lot at first glance, but data on municipal leaders goes back to 1792, when Montgomery was known as the Western Precinct. The title of “mayor” first appears in 1820, when Christopher Hoagland held the title. The first woman mayor of Montgomery was Catherine Frank, elected in 1983.


The Montgomery News talked to as many of these women as possible in honor of Women’s History Month (March).

Louise Wilson, Montgomery mayor from 2002 to 2006 and again in 2009.

Former Montgomery Mayor Louise Wilson, who now lives in Princeton where she serves as chairperson of the Princeton Planning Board, summed up the general response of the women interviewed for this article.


“This country, our state, our towns, need more women in office,” Wilson said. “Women in public office means issues that women care a lot about get paid attention to. “Women are excellent stewards of money and natural resources, and great at collaborating with folks and listening to constituents,” she added.


The Number of Women Mayors Is Particularly Low Statewide


The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, is a leading source of scholarly research and current data about American women’s political participation.


Its mission is to promote greater knowledge and understanding about women’s participation in politics and government and to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life.


“We find it fascinating,” said CAWP Data Service Manager Chelsea Hill, “that when we look at the number of women in congress or the number of women in the state legislature, it is usually around 30 percent. We find that the 18 percent [for women mayors in New Jersey] is particularly low.”

CAWP holds education and outreach programs such as Ready to Run, Teach a Girl to Lead, and NEW Leadership with the goal of teaching women and girls how to become more involved in politics. There is no easy answer for why the percentage of women mayors rests about 12 percent lower than women at other levels of government.


This discrepancy is especially notable considering that women make up 51.1 percent of the New Jersey population, according to the United States Census Bureau. Hill theorizes that the difference in representation has something to do with the way New Jersey mayors are elected.

Recruiting Women to Run for Public Office


Cecilia Xie Birge had not planned on running for office. She had volunteered to help with the township’s budget advisory committee. The day after a presentation she made on township funding, Louise Wilson, the mayor at the time, emailed Birge and asked her if she would be interested in running for township committee.


“As a new resident and an immigrant in town, I was puzzled by it,” Birge said in an interview with The Montgomery News. “It’s rare for an immigrant to step into politics, at least it definitely was rare at the time,” Birge said.


“It is becoming a little more popular now with the fast increase of immigrants in New Jersey, but at the time, because we ... were certainly new in Montgomery, I really wanted to be involved in the community to understand, ‘what is this community that we chose to call home?’”

Cecilia Xie Birge served as Montgomery Township mayor in 2007 and 2008.

In 2007 Cecilia Xie Birge became the first woman of color elected mayor in Montgomery Township and the first Asian American woman elected mayor in New Jersey.


Born and raised in Bejing, China, Birge came to American in the late 1980s and attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.


“At the time I wasn’t actually able to speak a lot of English because the China I grew up in was the old Communist China,” Birge said.


“It took a lot of effort for me to graduate from college but through hard work, I eventually became a bond analyst on Wall Street.


“I worked as a financial analyst for ten years or so before my then-husband and I chose Montgomery as our home to get settled and begin to have a family.”


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Birge was attracted to Montgomery’s beautiful rolling hills, great education system, and community values. “It wasn’t a hard choice at all,” she said.


Her interest in politics began long before she stepped into her position as mayor. She was a student protester during the historic demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, which eventually resulted in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.


“It definitely had a big influence in how I view politics and in how I governed,” she said. “Growing up in China, I witnessed a lot of corruption. That was the reason for student protests, which eventually evolved to the big one in Tiananmen Square. Birge’s experiences as Montgomery’s first woman-of-color mayor weren’t all positive.


“There were people who called me a communist and it was on record,” Birge said. “Absolutely I had blatant racism and I had lots of incidents where the micro-aggressions were so evident, at least to me.”


Birge discussed how women often put the blame on themselves when conflicts arise.

Christine Madrid, Montgomery mayor in 2015 and again in 2018.

"The first thing you do is you blame it on yourself,” Birge said. “We all have that as women. ‘Did I do something wrong? What more can we do? How much better can I do?'


“It takes a lot for us to say: ‘You know what? I am good enough, I’ve done everything I can, but there’s something wrong with the system and we need to face it,’”


To all the women who are considering pursuing politics as a career, “just do it,” encouraged Birge. “Even if you fail you will get something out of it and that’s success. It’s a process where there are only gains, there are no losses.”

Catherine Frank, Montgomery Township's first woman mayor in 1983.

Today, Birge lives in Princeton and works as the assistant principal at Princeton High School. She is pursuing her doctorate of education at Rutgers University, where she studies racial politics with a focus on Asian Americans in school leadership.


“There are so few Asian American leaders in the entire country,” Birge said. Birge is a passionate advocate for the Asian American community and has worked with the Center of Women and Politics at Rutgers as a speaker for their Rising Stars program, an annual conference where women are encouraged and trained on how to participate in politics.


The conference includes sub-groups for women of color and covers everything from how to run a campaign to how to fund raise and engage in civic life. “When I got started I didn’t know what this was all about and I think that is probably the case for all of us. “It has been quite a long and fruitful journey and I am very grateful. It has really informed me in so many ways. I am grateful for that email that Louise sent out,” Birge said.

Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, Montgomery mayor in 2019 and 2020, is pictured above at her swearing in ceremony in Trenton in January. She represents Legislative District-16, which includes Montgomery Township.

Montgomery’s Number 1 Recruiter


Talk to Mayor Devra Keenan, Deputy Mayor Shelly Bell, or Committeewoman Neena Singh, and they will likely share that former mayor Sadaf Jaffer asked them to run for office.


Jaffer, the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in the United States, served as mayor in 2019 and 2020.


“As a woman and a minority elected official, I often ask myself if I can in good faith suggest people from diverse backgrounds go into politics,” she told The Montgomery News. “I really don’t know the answer to that question. Elected officials need more support and help combating hate online and in person. There ought to be recourse, mediation, and other processes to ensure that diverse women’s voices continue to be included in policymaking.”


Jaffer decided it was worth the fight. She says: “Women are especially important in politics right now, especially with attacks on women’s health and Planned Parenthood.”


When asked why more women don’t run, she answered that it is challenging for women, especially women of color. “I’ve been attacked, personally. There was a ‘Sadaf Jaffer is a Radical’ website. It does make me fear for my family and my safety.”


In January, Jaffer became the first Muslim-American elected to the New Jersey State Assembly, representing Montgomery in LD-16. Jaffer shares the distinction with Shama Haider, who was elected to District 37, which covers municipalities such as Teaneck and Tenafly.

Women tend to run a cleaner race, according to Jaffer. In her election to the state Assembly, she said:
“We ran a positive campaign. We don’t want the public to hate our opponents. We did not tear down and try to destroy the other person. Elected office is public service. There is no reason to hate each other.”

Jaffer’s priorities for her two-year term as an assemblywoman are: To make state government and officials more accessible to constituents; for people to better understand state government — what it is, how does it govern.


Also, the two issues that tend to be especially important to women are on her list of top priorities: Healthcare — especially women’s health and maternal health; and Education. She wants to “incorporate more diversity into public education.” For example, include Asian-American studies in the K-12 curriculum. And, she wants to incorporate early childhood education and full-day kindergarten in more schools.

Patricia Graham, Montgomery mayor in 2016.

Common Struggles for Women Who Serve as Mayors


Mayor Devra Keenan identified a few challenges women mayors experience:


1) Women don’t delegate.

"We want it done, now," she says "Also, people don’t like to be delegated to by women. It is much easier for a man. Women often undersell themselves. Men over sell themselves. In the federal government, for example, men have this confidence that they can do it, even at a young age, while women, even in their 50s are still doubting themselves. The confidence seems to be bred out of you."

Devra Keenan, Montgomery mayor, 2021 and 2022.

2) Social Media.

Women have to develop a thick skin.


People on social media have scrutinized Mayor Keenan for her colored hair. “It’s purple or pink or whatever the hell I want it to be,” she says. “My hair color has nothing to do with why I run.”


If she wants to color her own hair Montgomery green, or have a yellow Mohawk, that’s on her.


“If my hair is an issue for you, you’ve got a problem,” she says. “I have never craved a spotlight. I have never liked it."


About the people who criticize her sense of style, she says: “I don’t think they are brave enough to do what they want to do. Why should anybody tell you what to do with your hair. I am confident enough to be whom I am. I do my own hair, that’s why it’s always changing.

“When I left the corporate world, I did bright blue.”

In part, she said her hair is a creative outlet. Having worked in a corporate environment, wearing suits and nylons everyday, she had little room for personal expression. Now, she says, she has her own consulting business and has more freedom to be herself.


“My nose is pierced too,” she says with a laugh. But she noted she does not wear her nose jewelry when conducting official mayoral business. Incidentally, she says her husband is color blind, so he does not even notice. “Complaining about my hair is non-substantive. It does not even brush upon the important issues involved in running the township.


The point, here, is that social media is especially harsh on women.


Mayor Keenan is not alone. Female politicians are not only targeted disproportionately but also subjected to different forms of harassment and abuse, according to a 2020 report by the Carnegie Endowment.

“Attacks targeting male politicians mostly relate to their professional duties, whereas online harassment directed at female politicians is more likely to focus on their physical appearance and sexuality,” according the Carnegie.

It is a worldwide problem for women in politics. Social media companies and governments are not doing nearly enough to combat it, according to Carnegie.


Mayor Keenan says, “Every single one of us [elected officials] is a resident and tax payer, and most important, your neighbor. “It is not about your looks, or what you wear.”


The disproportionate targeting of women politicians and activists has direct implications for the democratic process: it can discourage women from running for office, push women out of politics, or lead them to disengage from online political discourse in ways that harms their political effectiveness, according to the Carnegie report available at carnegieendowment.org.


“For those women who persevere, the abuse can cause psychological harm and waste significant energy and time, particularly if politicians struggle to verify whether or when online threats pose real-life dangers to their safety,” according to the report.


In recent years, women politicians and activists have launched campaigns to raise awareness of the problem and its impact on democratic processes. Not only is it difficult to get women to run for local office, it is tough to find women to sit on volunteer boards.


“It’s a big deal,” says Mayor Keenan, who also appoints folks to planning and zoning boards, and the board of health. “We’ve struggled to get representation of women on these boards. Getting women to step up was not easy. “If it was a simple solution, it would have been fixed by now.”


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What Can Be Done?


Since 2002, the percentage of women mayors in New Jersey has grown by 5 percent. “It’s discouraging to see such plodding progress for women here in New Jersey,” according to The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) Associate Director Jean Sinzdak.


CAWP Data Service Manager Chelsea Hill says it’s really incumbent upon "party leaders to redouble their efforts in candidate recruiting and support to help make New Jersey’s governing bodies representative of the communities they serve.”


“A number of the municipalities in New Jersey will elect their mayor through voters and the other municipalities will elect their mayor through the council, so every term another council member becomes the mayor,” said Hill. Montgomery Township is one of the municipalities in which the five-member township committee elects the mayor.


Hill says: “It really is important who is on the council in those municipalities because if there are no women on the council or if there is only one woman on the council, if they are rotating, you are not going to get a woman for quite awhile.


“It is very important to have a network within municipal government of women who are already involved, in order to get those numbers up.”

Montgomery Township Deputy Mayor Shelly L. Bell is sworn in.

The Concrete Ceiling


Deputy Mayor Shelly L. Bell — perhaps a future Montgomery mayor — sums up the experience of a Black woman running for office in a recent interview with The Montgomery News.

“We’ve all heard the term glass ceiling. Now, there is a ‘concrete ceiling’ that applies exclusively to women of color. Someone like me faces even greater barriers than my white counterparts.”

Bell said she reached out to ElectWoman for help. “They are the backbone of a historic number of women making progress at the municipal level in politics,” Bell added.


Women face a unique set of challenges balancing family and career and adding elected public service to the mix can result in extreme stress levels, not to mention, impossible schedules and personal demands. “I will say, I think women of color are less likely to be asked to run for office, than men,” she said. “We come from less affluent districts many times. Fundraising is more difficult. When I first became interested in politics, I was the only woman in the room. The males around the table would ask, why are you here. Shouldn’t you be at home with your family.


“Do not allow others to make you doubt yourself, to feel inadequate, or to dim your lights!” Bell says. “I want women to read this and realize they have value to contribute as a person even if they lack experience.”

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