Women are especially prominent in the new wave of Garden State grassroots political activism. Now comes another indication of their progress toward more political power at the local level — 43 women are serving as county freeholders (elected, part-time county-level legislators). That’s four more women than in the previous year. Women now make up 32 percent of all freeholders in the state. Of the 43, 14 are women of color, including seven black women, five Latinas, and two Asian Pacific Islanders.
The state’s 21 counties serve as administrative and political units, and every county has a legislative body known as the board of chosen freeholders. We’re the only state using the “freeholder” title — an old English term for a person who owned land free of debt. There are three to nine freeholders per county, based on population.
According to data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, the top three counties for women’s representation on freeholder boards are Somerset (60 percent), Bergen (57 percent), and Union (56 percent), where women hold a majority of the available positions. In contrast, both Salem and Warren counties have zero women serving as freeholders.
“Much attention has been paid recently to the record numbers of women running for office nationally, but this report makes it clear that there is much work to be done to recruit and encourage women to run for local office here in the Garden State,” noted CAWP associate director Jean Sinzdak. “We urge New Jersey women to throw their hats in the ring, and we ask our county party leaders on both sides of the aisle to use their influence to recruit women to run.”
Women’s representation in New Jersey mayoralties has a lot more ground to make up; there are 86 women serving as mayors, up from 80 last year; that’s only 15 percent of all New Jersey mayors.