Among the growing number of women winning office in Montgomery and Prince George's counties are eight mayors. They come from diverse backgrounds and run towns and cities that have personalities as unique as those of any human being. But while each mayor faces a different set of problems and a different set of opportunities, they areall involved at the level of government that is most akin to grass-roots politics and civic activism. Most were first civic activists and grass-roots politicians, serving their political apprenticeships in local clubs and civicorganizations. As a measure of how far women have come and how far they have come and how far they have to go at fundamental level of government, the number of women mayors in Maryland's 153 municipalities has increased from six to 14 in the last five years. However, eight of the 14 are from the two suburban Washington counties, Montgomery and Prince George's
Kensington Mayor Jayne Plank once joked at a meeting of women politicians that "my husband plays tennis -- and I play politics."
She thought it was funny. The otherwomen did not. "sometimes," Plank muses, women in politics "take themselves too seriously."
Plank, who has served on the Kensington Town Council since 1967 and as mayor since 1974, is one of a breed of women politicians who shun a "feminist" label and deflect serious questions about discrimination and women's roles by telling jokes on themselves.
For instance, Plank says when she telephones people and begins, "This is Mayor Jayne Plank," often the question comes back: "Mary Jane Plank?"
When she was very, very pregnant" with her fifth and last son seven years ago and garbed in a bright muumuu, Plank rose at a Maryland Municipal League meeting to "speak to the issue."The remark brought down the house.
Even the story of how she got into politics takes a humorous turn. Disturbed about a zoning issue, she says, "i got on my soapbox and Mrs.Crank complained so much that they said, 'Why don't you run for town council?'"
Since then, Plank, who declines to give her age, also has been on the board of directors of the National League ofCities and in 1978 was first woman president of the Maryland Municipal League.
Her duties, which sometimes keep her working 80 hours a week, involve running the mayor's office, organizing and calling meetings with the five council members (two of whom are women)and attending state and national gatherngs. She gets $700 annually for expenses, but no salary.
In her office at the 1928 National Guard Armory that is now town hall, Plank keeps a box of toys behind the desk for kids who roam in.
"this is one thing you wouldn't find in a male mayor's office," she says, holding up a small red plastic Volkswagen.
Plank, officially a Republican but a non-partisan in her mayor's role, feels local government is "closest to the people and the most responsive and accountable" because "the buck stops here -- where else is it going?"
But the fifth-generation Washingtonian is quick to acknowledge that she aspires to higher office in the Maryland Senate and in Congress. Recently plank was asked to run for lieutenant governor and Congress, but "i turned them down because I didn't think personally I was ready."
When would she be ready? She laughs"if i had a wife."
Plank does not count herself among feminists, who she feels can be "too antagonistic." She adds, "I'm a half-generation behind that truly liberated woman of today."
Now serious she explains, "I don't run as a woman, I run as the most qualified candidate. Those (who do this) are the women who get ahead and stay ahead."
Plank recalls with a smile what one male colleague on the Maryland Municipal League Board of Directors once told her.
"you know, Jayne," he said, "I wasn't quite sure what to do with you when you came on the board. But now," he added, "you're one of the boys."
Many people would've been offended by that," Plank observes. "but I took it as a compliment."