When former Legislative Council vice chair Mary Ann Jacob was named leader of that body in December, it marked a milestone in Newtown government: for the first time in town history, women lead most local governing bodies, including First Selectman Pat Llodra and Board of Education chair Debbie Leidlein.
It's an unparalleled landscape for Newtown: Llodra, after all, is only the town’s second female first selectman, after Zita McMahon. Jacob is the council’s first female chair.
"As far as I know, it’s unprecedented,” says Llodra of town government’s current makeup. "Up until a few years ago, we didn’t have a lot of representation of women on our major boards ... I used to think we were underrepresented, given we’re 51% of the population. You would expect we would be represented more broadly. There’s no reason you shouldn’t expect that.”
And many women in Newtown government have gotten their start in a similar way: through their service in a PTA or PTO at a local school. Jacob, who was named Legislative Council chair Dec. 4, is one — she served as president of the Sandy Hook Elementary School PTA in the mid-2000s, with current Board of Education vice-chair Laura Roche as vice president.
“We all sort of came from that sort of era,” says Jacob, referring to herself, Roche and Leidlein, who also served as a PTA officer.
"Education does tend to motivate women more,” she says. “They’re in the schools more often, they have an opportunity to get their feet on the ground. And people get involved with things they care about. Those people who, I think, become more interested in the broader things are the ones who become [elected officials.]”
Roche says the PTA is a good step for women who want to get more involved.
"Being on the board is a volunteer role, and your goal is to work for the children, students, staff and faculty,” she says. "You’re kind of doing the same thing from a different way. It’s a lot of time, a lot of work, but it’s valuable and important work. You’re able to help out on a higher level and reach the entire school system.”
Roche, who launched initiatives to bring smart boards to schools before joining the Board of Education, says she’s glad to see more women in government, but adds she’d also like to see more men in the PTA.
"From the PTA’s side, I’ve seen women dominate, because it’s usually the stay-at-home moms or the caretakers -- those are the ones who have the time,” she says. "We’re also seeing a shift where there’s more stay home dads, and they’re having more time to get involved with the PTA. I think that’s a great thing. Getting men involved with the educational side would help getting more advocates to support what’s needed.”
Jacob was elected to the council in 2009 when she decided to broaden her scope to town issues as well as school issues.
"During the high school renovation and the issues surrounding budgeting and referendums, I got motivated to do more," she says. "It seemed a natural next step to get involved in the council -- it allowed me to have more influence on a wider variety of issues, and to represent the people in Sandy Hook who are my neighbors and friends."
She says she sees some of the same spirit in residents now who begin to seek more active involvement — like Board of Education member Michelle Ku, who started as a concerned parent and became more involved as she advocated for the Sandy Hook Elementary School project vote in 2013.
"I definitely see people doing things who want to get involved," says Jacob. "You see it — if you watch over the next few months, they're faces you see at every council meeting."
“The Time Is Right For Women — And Men"
Llodra also got her start in the PTA, an experience she said helped her develop leadership skills.
"In my experience, many of the women that end up in leadership roles at any level of government start that involvement at the PTA level,” says Llodra. "And it’s typical that women take a more leadership role with their kids in schools. Often the female of the family will participate at the PTA level not just in terms of fundraising but setting policy for the PTA and working through issues at the school, helping with new challenges and initiatives. That’s a wonderful training ground for later participation in other roles in the government."
As a school principal, Llodra says she often found herself the only woman in the room at meetings and conferences. In 1989, when she took her first principal job, she says she began to realize most of her colleagues were men. Athletics would dominate the agendas — a “necessary conversation,” she says, but a disconnect for her.
But by 2004, when she retired, women outnumbered men. The conversations had grown more balanced, encompassing academics and curricula.
"I’m not surprised as I look around now and see so many women emerging as municipal leaders,” she says. "The time is right for women -- and men -- to participate in local government.”
Many women who serve as mayors or selectmen in nearby towns also got their start in the PTA, including Redding First Selectman Natalie Ketchum, according to Llodra. Seeing other women run for office or take on broader duties can be inspiring to women seeking to get involved.
"Every woman in government service in Newtown serves as a role model for every other woman,” says Llodra. "Certainly, I would like more women -- and more men -- involved in government. Everyone with a skill set to serve. Balance is important. Men and women will typically come to a discussion on an issue with different perspectives."