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Photograph of Rosemary S. Tierney - a headshot of a woman with short brown hair and bright makeup, looking at the camera

In the 100th anniversary year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Rosemary S. Tierney (1932-2020), the first woman elected mayor of the City of New Bedford, became the 100th woman profiled in Lighting the Way: Historic Women of The SouthCoast. A trailblazer for women in politics, Rosemary reflected on women’s suffrage in her first inaugural address in 1992. Elected for three terms, she mobilized women to become an efficient political force as grassroots campaigners.

In the 100th anniversary year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Rosemary S. Tierney (1932-2020), the first woman elected mayor of the City of New Bedford, became the 100th woman profiled in Lighting the Way: Historic Women of The SouthCoast. A trailblazer for women in politics, Rosemary reflected on women’s suffrage in her first inaugural address in 1992. Elected for three terms, she mobilized women to become an efficient political force as grassroots campaigners.

Rosemary was born on April 29, 1932 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston to Mary (Kirby) and Edward T. Seibert, a porter at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Raised in Milton during the Great Depression, “Rosie” graduated from St. Gregory’s High School in Dorchester. Her father died when she was 16 years old, and her mother returned to work. Rosemary worked three jobs to get her degree from Emmanuel College and help support the family. During the school year, she worked on weekends at Jordan Marsh and nights at Lower Mills Post Office. She was a waitress on Cape Cod during summers. Rosemary learned the values of responsibility and frugality through her close-knit family’s difficult circumstances.

Rosemary married Jack Tierney in December of 1956, and the couple lived in France for three years while Jack was an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps of the U.S. Air Force. Rosemary taught English there while Jack tried court martial cases. In 1961, Rosemary and Jack settled in New Bedford, where Jack’s sister and brother both worked. Rosemary taught at Keith Junior High School and Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. While working and raising a family, she attended Bridgewater State College at night and earned a master’s degree.

A staunch Democrat, Rosemary was elected to the New Bedford Democratic City Committee in 1970. Committed to public education, in 1971 she was elected to the New Bedford School Committee, where she served for several years, including as its chairwoman during the 1976 teachers’ strike. While on the School Committee in 1977, Rosemary was instrumental in getting a new West End elementary school named as the Sgt. William H. Carney Memorial Academy for the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor for his extraordinary Civil War service. Beginning in 1984, she was elected to the Governor’s Council three times, representing the First District. Through these elections, Rosemary perfected a grassroots campaigning style that would become her trademark.

In 1991, Rosemary was elected the 47th Mayor of the City of New Bedford, the first and only woman to be elected mayor in the city’s 173-year history, as of 2020. She organized family and friends, mostly women, into a door-to-door campaign throughout New Bedford neighborhoods, building relationships and coalitions to drive public policy. Through old school no-nonsense canvassing, Rosemary and her workers promised safe and clean neighborhoods, community policing and effective fire protection. In her first inaugural address on January 6, 1992, she commented on women’s suffrage and becoming New Bedford’s first elected woman mayor:

My mother and mother-in-law, both of whom saw women receive the right to vote in their lifetimes, would have loved to have been here tonight. Our electorate understands, and has shown that they understand, that men and women are equally qualified to serve in any job that this City of New Bedford has to offer. And as the first woman in New Bedford’s highest office, I will feel a special obligation to be, for men and women alike, a proof of that understanding. I also feel a very special pride in you, for being one of the first municipalities in Massachusetts to translate your beliefs in equal opportunity for men and women into practical reality at the very top.

Elected as mayor for three terms, Rosemary succeeded in the arena of male-dominated politics by working hard to create programs and policies that included all New Bedford residents.

During her first year in office, on November 20, 1992, Rosemary unveiled her “Cornerstone for Change” initiative, an ambitious plan to rebuild New Bedford. This $27.5 million strategy included renovation of city buildings, parks, and beaches as well as creation of an art museum downtown, the New Bedford Art Museum, founded in 1993. Over the course of three terms, from 1992 through 1998, Rosemary focused on the following projects: the state-of-the-art regional Crapo Hill Refuse District, the Buttonwood Park Zoo renovation, completion of the wastewater treatment plant at Fort Rodman, opening of Fort Taber Park, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park designation, expansion of UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) into the abandoned Star Store building downtown, opening of UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST) in the South End, construction of the Dennison Memorial Community Center, and the establishment of senior centers at Brooklawn Park and downtown. Perhaps her most important accomplishment was restoring New Bedford’s financial stability by erasing a $6 million inherited deficit through strict budgetary controls to prevent downgrading of its bond rating, which made all these projects possible. “My proudest accomplishment is the credibility I have given the city in the financial markets,” she said in a 1997 Standard-Times interview after her loss in the preliminary election for what would have been a fourth term.

Jane Gonsalves, former New Bedford City Councilor for 10 two-year terms (1994-2014) and two-time council president, served as councilor during the last four years of Rosemary’s time as mayor. Reflecting on Rosemary, Jane has shared the following anecdotes:

As most people that worked with Rosemary will tell you, she always said exactly what she thought. As a new councilor who had gone to school with her children, I found that really intimidating at first. But there was another side to Mayor Rosemary Tierney; she could argue with you and disagree with you but a few minutes later make a joke or ask about your family. She was able to put aside differences that arose in the heat of the moment. She was always willing to share the credit for a project and if I went to her with a neighborhood issue she would immediately call the department head who had jurisdiction into her office and tell them to figure out how to get the issue taken care of. The small playground behind Hathaway School was constructed in that manner, and when the time came to dedicate it, Rosemary was happy to share the podium with me. She had a great sense of humor and sometimes used it to defuse tense situations. Not long after she was elected she found herself immersed in issues surrounding the sewage treatment plant which was being built at Fort Taber, and the construction of the Crapo Hill landfill. Former Councilor David Gerwatowski recalls Rosemary saying, “People think the Mayor’s job is glamorous but here I am dealing with s*** and garbage.”

After her time as mayor, Rosemary spent decades continuing to impact the lives of the people of New Bedford. She served for over 20 years as the city’s representative and chairperson for the Crapo Hill Regional Refuse District. A lifetime member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, Rosemary joined her friend MarDee Xifaras in campaigning for Al Gore in Pennsylvania in 2000 during his presidential bid. During New Bedford’s mayoral elections of 2005 and 2011, she campaigned for Scott Lang and Jon Mitchell respectively, and advised both administrations. In 2008, Rosemary was elected Democratic State Committee Woman.

Such an impact was acknowledged with numerous awards. Emmanuel College, her alma mater, recognized her public service. A Buzzards Bay Visionary Award recognized her environmental responsibility in waste disposal and harbor cleanup. In 1996, Rosemary received an honorary law degree from Southern New England School of Law, now UMass Law School. In 2019, the Hazelwood Senior Center was renamed the Rosemary S. Tierney Community Center, honoring her work for senior citizens.

Rosemary concluded her first inaugural speech with, “Let’s revive our faith in ourselves, together. Let’s rekindle New Bedford’s light, let’s renew our faith in ourselves and with faith that God will provide the Mayor of the City of New Bedford with wisdom and courage to perform well, let’s go forward together!” As a testament to her faith, Rosemary was honored to host Mother Teresa in her 1995 visit to New Bedford.

Learn more about Rosemary Tierney in this story that is part of the digital exhibit Organizing New Bedford: Women Who Mobilized Change.

Ann O’Leary, Emily Bourne Research Fellow

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