Janet Kohnen Herlihy: First Democratic Woman on the Mahwah Township Committee
by John W. Bristow, ca. 1990s
Even though women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had won a hard fought battle to obtain the freedom to vote, among other things, we did not experience a large influx of women participating in the Mahwah political arena until well into the 20th century, and, even then the pace at which women entered politics was quite gradual. Those women, who were intrepid enough to be the first to venture into politics, sometimes found the way strewn with obstacles. But they made it easier for those who followed… as it usually goes.
One of the first Mahwah woman residents to climb in the political ring in the early 1950’s was Janet Herlihy, and she carries the distinction of being the first female Democratic Mahwah Township Committee member, ever, elected in 1955. She continued to run for Township Committee in every election through the next ten years. Up until 1955, the political scene in Mahwah was known to be a Republican stronghold, dominated by men. There were Democrats, but they consistently lost elections. What kind of a woman would even think about flying in the face of that status quo? Janet Herlihy did and here is part of her story. I say “part”, because this is rather cursory, and it is considered a work in progress, which will be completed in more detail as we have more time to go back through committee meeting minutes, and interview others who know or knew her. Mrs. Herlihy now resides in Florida, and will be 80 years old this spring. I was fortunate to be able to interview her on the phone in order to present this information this evening.
She was born Janet Kohnen, in New York City, but was raised for most of her childhood by her grandparents on their small farm on Fardale Avenue here in Mahwah. For a brief time, the family moved to Chicago, but returned to Mahwah, where Janet finished her elementary education, graduating eighth grade in the small one room Fardale Schoolhouse. At that time there was no high school in Mahwah, and Janet did not want to go to Ramsey High, so the family moved to Jersey City where Janet attended William L. Dickenson High School. While there, she met her husband-to be, Timothy Herlihy. After they were married, and had two children, World War II broke out. Tim joined the Navy and was stationed in California; and Janet packed up the kids, crossed the country, and joined him. After the war, they moved back to New Jersey, and decided to move to the country, where it was less crowded. In 1948, they purchased six acres in the Fardale section of Mahwah from Isaac Bogert, and built their own home, on “Herlihy Drive”.
Janet and Tim had two more children, four in all, and as the kids grew into adults, they gave each child a portion, thus creating what they jokingly referred to as the “Herlihy compound!” There are still three Herlihy children, living there with their families.
It did not take long after they moved into Mahwah, before Janet took part in local political discussions, and her ideas became well-known enough that she was approached by Isaac “Ike” Bogert, and some other Democratic party members to run for a position on what was then known as the Township Committee. They thought she stood a good chance of getting elected. To Janet the most bothersome aspect of the Mahwah political scene was the predominance of Republicans, and the lack of opposition to them in elections. So, she accepted their offer to run on the Democratic ticket. When I interviewed Mrs. Herlihy, I asked why she thought they had chosen her, she said simply, “I had a feeling that they wanted a watchdog on the committee.” When she won the election with almost as many votes as the Mayor, she became the first Democratic Township Committee woman in Mahwah’s history.
While she ran in every election year for the next ten years, her terms were not consecutive, because it seemed every Presidential year, even though she was on the ballot, she was voted out, because Mahwah citizens “voted a straight Republican ticket” in Presidential election years. However, she was re-elected twice more in the intervening local political election years.
Janet Herilihy died at age 94 in 2014 (see Mahwah Patch obituary)
The challenge she had to effect change to the status quo was apparent, serving as the only Democrat on a solid Republican committee, in a town dominated by Republican politics. She knew her ideas would probably be strongly opposed, but that apparently did not intimidate her. Mahwah experienced a growth spurt after World War II, and growth often brings with it new issues to deal with as a government body. Janet’s opinions and proposals about those issues are a matter of public record, and yes, she did faced strong Republican opposition to some of her ideas.
For example, shortly after she was elected for the first time, it became apparent that some of Mahwah’s citizens would benefit if the town applied for available Federal Housing Authority monies in order to demolish some substandard housing, and use FHA funds to build new homes and provide low interest mortgages. Other towns had done this. When Janet recommended in a proposal that a housing committee examine the feasibility of using FHA funding to build low income housing for Mahwah’s citizens, no one on the committee would even second her motion. On several occasions throughout that term in office, she tried to reintroduce the motion to form the housing committee, but due to opposition by the incumbent Republicans, she was stonewalled and the proposal was considered a dead issue. She tried, and she knew it was needed and that it could be done. It did happen about 30 years later, but the county built the housing.
Another issue that where she voiced a strong opinion was the battle taking place between the residents of Stag Hill and the town government over the inadequacy of roads going into that area, and the issue of busing students who lived there to Mahwah public schools. The only available roads, Geiger Road, Old Stag Hill Road and Hillburn Road were all in very bad condition, and when the town was asked by the Stag Hill Civic League in 1954 to fix the south east end of Stag Hill Road, they were told there was not enough money. Instead, the township committee decided to improve Geiger Road for the purpose of busing, and the result was not necessarily an improvement, but a road that was, as Mrs. Herlihy put it, “a roller coaster, but straight down and then a sharp corner banked wrong just before the end. It was an accident waiting to happen.” She opposed the work on Geiger Road, favoring the repair to Stag Hill Road instead as a safer road to bus the students on the mountain. She was again voted down. In the first four years of using the improved Geiger Road, there were nine accidents on the road and two fatalities, it took these tragedies, and pressure from the County Superintendent, not to mention a change in the composition of the Township committee mix, to set in motion the political wheels which resulted Stag Hill Road, being repaired.
Janet also voiced strongly her feeling that once the Annie Winter property above Winter’s pond was donated to the Town that it be an ideal spot for a combined Town Hall, Police and Fire Complex, to keep it all in one place. I think we all know that did not happen either.
On a more personal level, her husband Tim, was a Mahwah Fireman for twenty-five years, and she was an active member of the ladies auxiliary. In addition, she organized about fifteen of oldest teenage daughter’s friends (all of various ages too), into an after school activity group for a number of years. As Janet said, “they needed something to do, and I thought they needed that something to be constructive, somehow giving something back to the community”. Called the “Fardale Teenettes”, they held a fashion show, and sold Christmas trees to benefit children at Good Samaritan and the elderly at Bergen Pines Hospital among other charity minded activities.
It was not an easy task holding political office, while raising a family of four active children, and Janet chose not to run again after 1967. She then accepted an offer to work at the Police and Fire Academy, continuing there as secretary to the Director until 1977. She now resides in Florida, and we thank her for her time and also for her courage in being a political ground-breaker for future generations of women in Mahwah’s politics.