Sunday afternoon in Montgomery County 25 years ago; the noon dinner dishes were washed and dried and Stella Werner had changed from her church clothes to a house dress when a deputation of some 100 women dropped by with a basket full of money.
They had come to ask her to run in the 1952 U.S. Senate race. They had collected 100 one-dollar bills to pay her filing fee and were ready to raise money for her at "silver dollar" teas. She ran and was defeated in the general election. But Mrs. Werner won the primary - the first Maryland woman to do so - and she went on to become the president of the Montgomery County Council.
A number of other women among those that visited Werner that afternoon later won their own political victories. One became a state senator. Another served on the Democratic State Central Committee. A third became registrar of wills.
More importantly, their pioneering experiences would ultimately help women become one of the most potent political forces in Montgomery County, years ahead of the current women's rights movements. Women have run for office and held office in Montgomery at a rate without parallel in the country.
Now, three of the seven members of the County Council are women and so are three of the seven members of county board of education. In the county's delegation to the state legislature, seven of the 18 delegates are women and one of the six senators is a woman. It is by far the greatest female representation of any delegation in the Maryland General Assembly.
The only woman judge sitting on Maryland appeals courts is from Montgomery County. The same can be said of the only woman on the Washington Area Transit Authority.
Women head the county's Board of Appeals, the sewer and water commission and four departments in the county government. Two of the five county representatives on the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission are women. The county's registrar of wills is a woman. Women comprise roughly half of the central committees for both political parties in the county.
A Montgomery County woman, Louise Gore, was the 1974 Republican nominee (unsuccessful) for governor of Maryland, the first woman to run for governor in the general election. The same year, Ida Mae Garrott was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for county executive.
The enormous role of women is undisputed in the county, "It's not even open to argument," said Richard Schifter, a Washington lawyer and political leader in Montgomery County. "The problem in putting together a ticket has been to avoid having more than half the candidates women."
Without exception, these women have run without a feminist platform. In fact, the organized women's movement has had only a secondary role in Montgomery because it came so late.
The reasons behind women's ascension to power in Montgomery are rooted in the county's dramatic growth and in its afluence. Since 1959, the population has almost doubled every decade, growing from 150,000 to almost 600,000. The county needed an entire new structure to govern, to educate the children, to pave the streets, and to build a community.
But the men weren't available. Ambitious professionals, they were drawn to the interests of the nation's capitol. Many were federal employees, forbidden by the Hatch Act to engage in partisan politics.
"My husband always took the front page at breakfast," said Lucille Maurer, a Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates from Montgomery County and wife of a State Department lawyer, "I was the recipient of the Metro news, (section). That's how I got involved," she said, half joking. "Here, everything was submerged in the flow of national and international news."
The women were well educated, and often the daughters of civic minded parents. Many could afford to hire domestic help and become activists. "We weren't educated just to cook and go to bridge clubs," said Marie Garber, supervisor of the county Board of Elections.
Much the same can be said of women living in the neighboring slice of Prince George's County, an area not unlike Montgomery. There women also play major roles with men in social and political institutions. U.S. Rep. Gladys N. Spellman, who represent northern Prince George's and a small part of Montgomery, has won both of her elections with an essential margin from this constitutency.
Progress for women really began some 30 years ago, as the United States returned to peace and Montgomery County faced the end of rule by native landholders and the old gentry. Self-government and thousands of newcomers with new money, helped make the county ripe for women's influence.
"We were in an era when women were beginning to find politics as a way to provide public service. Before, it had been charities . . . You see, this was the most rapid period of growth in the county and we wanted it to be well-planned," explained Stella Werner.
"Our children had no libraries or recreation facilities, or schools. All this had to be done by women. The men were far too busy. We were the only ones, really, with the time or the inclination."
Time was a luxury derived from the earnings of their husbands; generally the men's well-paying positions brought the women to Montgomery in the first place. The county is annually listed as one of the two wealthiest in the nation. The median family income is now $27,600. Once settled, the women were free to become politicians as well as hire housekeepers and babysitters.
The inclination was drawn from more complicated sources. Education was one. Many of these women had earned college degrees and used their training before marriage. Today, women have a median education level on three years of college in Montgomery county.
Many also came from comfortable middle-to upper middle-class families with activist traditions. One woman politician was raised in the Wisconsin LaFellette tradition. Another was a daughter of a New York suffragist.
The crucial point, however, in the opinion of many county women and men, was the character of the husbands.
"If you look at the husbands of the active women you've got a nice cross section of the lines of national influence," said Garber.
Marjorie Sonnenfeldt, the chairwoman of the County Board of Appeals oversees variances in zoning laws, and the quality of growth in the county. Her husband, Helmut, is a man considered to have been one of the brains behind the U.S. detente with Russia and China during his five-year career as chief aide to Henry A. Kissinger. Now he is the counselor to the State Department.
"I couldn't have done all of this if my husband hadn't been a secure man," said Del. Marilyn Goldwater, wife of biochemist William Goldwater who is also an administrator at the National Institutes of Health. "Husbands have to be successful in their own right."
Even if husbands William Goldwater and Helmut Sonnenfeldt had felt an impulse to throw themselves into local politics, they would have had to remain on the sidelines. As federal employees, they are "hatched" - forbidden by the Hatch Act from participating in partisan politics. About one-third of Montgomery County men fall into this category.
In a 1964 University of Oregon study of Montgomery, the Hatch Act was cited as the primary reason for the "considerable indication that women play a more pronounced leadership role than in urban areas." So pronounced, the study said half-seriously, that a "gynecocracy," - government by women - was in the making.
"When you're comapaigning it seems like 100 per cent of the men are hatched," said Del. Kay Bienan, from northern Prince George's. "They say: no I can't help you. Then they promise to send their wives. It's as much a shield as a barrier."
Women began campaigning on issues long before they ran for office.As they settled in the county they discovered that politicians controlled the money they wanted for libraries, schools, health clinics. "We had one pay phone at the end of block when I moved and we had to figure out how to get more," explained Del. Helen Koss, who was state president of the League of Women Voters before going to the General Assembly.
Practically every woman interviewed - from the leaders to the precinct worker - got started in politics through domestic concerns. They built dozens of clubs and civic organizations to address these issues, a network famous across the state.
Groups like the Suburban Woman's Democratic Club, Montgomery County Civic Federation and Montgomery County Council of PTA's grew to be forces both respected and feared by all politicians.
Now, to get elected in the county you have to have more than a political base in the traditional sense, the career sense. You have to have a history of community activism," said Goldwater.
When Lucille Maurer settled in Montgomery in 1950, she said, she was a somewhat lonely housewife and mother. Raised in a small town she remembers "feeling lost in the big county. There was no center, no downtown, no traditions."
She was also a trained economist, wife of an attorney with the U.S. State Department and a woman who typifies the Montgomery experience.
She helped build the first cooperative nursery school in the county for her own children and found friends as well as future political allies. "We were young women in communities just springing up. Most of us didn't have families nearby so we needed each other."
Maurer is now probably the legislature's most respected authority on education and heads the education subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Along with other Jewish women in the county, Maurer cites religious tradition as a factor in her activism.
About a decade ago, the Jewish-Community Center of Greater Washington moved from the District of Columbia to Montgomery CountyK. Over half of the Jewish population in the area now lives there, a boon to the women's political ascendancy.
"Civic responsbility was a value in our homelife. It is part of the religious value system to be responsive to the community," said Maurer, who like many other Jewish women in the county is a liberal Democrat.
In the last five years, national changes have had their affect on Montgomery County. The sobering reassessments after Watergate and the Vietnam war have softened the county's fascination with national affairs. Suddenly local politics grew in importance, as did the women.
"Before, the state legislature was the pits. It was associated with Baltimore and in Washington, well, you root for the Redskins, not the Colts. But now people understand that the Congress isn't everything. Local politics does matter," said Goldwater, who, like the other women, is quite pleased with the change of events. "Women matter."