A local look back at Women’s History Month

Three of the most influential women in Northeast Philadelphia reflect on Women’s History Month.

Sen. Christine Tartaglione/TIMES FILE PHOTO

Women have always played a vital role in Northeast Philadelphia and beyond, but not often enough get the recognition they deserve for shaping communities around the globe. March is Women’s History Month in the United States of America and what better way to look back on the month that was than speaking to three of the most influential women residing in the Northeast.

State Rep. Martina White (R-170th dist.), state Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D-2nd dist.) and Deputy Police Commissioner Christine Coulter have long called the Northeast home, which is where they all credit their most powerful influences. Their mothers.

For Tartaglione, witnessing her mother’s successful campaign for city commissioner in 1975 to become the first woman to win a citywide office left a lasting impact she fondly recalls to this day.

“You want to know why my mom ran?” Tartaglione asks me. “One of the city commissioners (Gene Maier) pointed out his finger at her and said she was a nobody.”

This motivated Christine’s mother, Margaret Tartaglione, to campaign tirelessly to prove she deserved a seat in that office. She won her race.

“She was just an inspiration,” said Tartaglione. “She had to be a little brash, she had to be a little loud because they didn’t want to hear her, so they heard her.”

As a child, Coulter never really envisioned herself becoming a police officer. Why?

“Because, growing up, there weren’t women police officers in Philadelphia,” Coulter said.

In the 1970s, the Police Department welcomed its first group of female offices onto the force, as Coulter calls them the “pioneer” group. Coulter is approaching 30 years in the PPD this November, but thinks back to how younger folks have lived their whole lives knowing that women can be police officers.

Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter/ TIMES FILE PHOTO

“Anybody born 40 years and later have always seen women police officers, so that wasn’t anything that struck them as different,” said Coulter. “Not the greatest percentage as we have male, but like as a child I never saw women police officers because it just didn’t exist in Philadelphia anyway.”

Coulter says she never faced any disadvantages because of her gender since joining the force and credits the pioneer group for paving the way for other females down the line.

Lifting one another up is a message that White shared in her office in Somerton for women. White is the youngest female in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

She has never seen being a woman as a disadvantage for her political career thus far and in fact credits a woman, family friend Alice Udovich, for helping her enter the special election in the 170th Legislative District in 2015.

Before seeking to fill the seat previously held by Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle, White was also in another male dominated field, finance.

White says she “absolutely” sees parallels between both fields. There are certain advantages and challenges that a woman will face in either finance and public office, she believes.

Rep. Martina White/ TIMES FILE PHOTO

“In terms of a challenge that women might face in a male-dominated industry is just being able to, I guess the best way to say it is being able to garner the respect of others in your field,” said White. “I think that doesn’t necessarily have to do with your gender, it probably has more to do with you as a person being able to reflect upon them why, what your role and responsibility is, is so important and how you can as a person make a difference in the community that you serve, whether that’s in finance or as a government official.”

Both Tartaglione and White’s first successful run for office were in races that were certainly challenging for any newcomer. Tartaglione won her seat for the state Senate in 1994, the same year in which Democrats across the country were losing countless seats. Tartaglione was just one of two Democratic newcomers to win state Senate seats in the whole nation, according to her. White’s successful campaign in the 2015 special election included replacing a seat that was previously held by a Democrat to become the first Republican to win a state House seat in Philadelphia in decades.

“I’ll tell you a story,” Tartaglione says to me. “When I first got there (Pennsylvania Senate), I wore a pantsuit. And I was admonished and asked to leave the floor because I wasn’t dressed properly. I didn’t have a skirt on.”

This happened in 1995, says Tartaglione, when she became one of just three women to serve in the Senate. Tartaglione says the policy change happened immediately after this exchange. Why not go to the press with the story?

“No, of course not,” said Tartaglione. “What happens on the Senate floor usually stays on the Senate floor, that kind of stuff. But no, I didn’t go to the press. I could have, but I didn’t.”

Each of these three influential women credit men and women alike as being mentors and hope to return the favor one day as well.

Coulter credits her first sergeant in the 25th District, Mike Murphy, for her success in moving up in the police department.

“(He) took the time to study with me….., really put a lot of time in for someone who I didn’t know before I came on the job,” said Coulter. “There wasn’t any obligation to do that, on his own time, you know, some additional work on weekends and stuff.”

Approaching 30 years in the department, she still has to credit another individual as a mentor in recent years as well, Jane Castor. She was the police chief in Tampa, Florida and was her “assigned mentor” in a program.

“I guess to make the point that, even at this level, it helps to have a mentor,” says Coulter.

State Rep. John Taylor is approaching retirement as another Republican woman seeks to replace him, Patty-Pat Kozlowski, but is also credited with mentoring White.

“I think mentors can come in all different forms, I guess, so in my case I have John Taylor as my mentor in Harrisburg,” said White. “He’s not a woman, obviously, but he is as equally good of a mentor as I could have asked for.”

Tartaglione credits former state Sen. Vince Fumo as her mentor when she first entered the Senate.

“We’ve come a long way,” we really have,” said Tartaglione, noting there are more women running for office in recent years in comparison to decades past.

Go do it. That’s the message that all three women have for young women who are uneasy about seeking office, becoming a police officer or entering whatever field they desire to be in. ••

John Cole can be reached at JCole@bsmphilly.com