Lowell Since '45

Gail Dunfey: The Name Fight

GailDunfey: The Name Fight

How hard was it to break the glass ceiling in 1973? Well, take the case of Lowell City Councilor Gail Dunfey. Elected in 1971, Dunfey had been in office for more than a year when she married Ronald Sinicki, a Maynard office manager. As many women (see Rodham, Hillary) were beginning to do in the 1970s, Dunfey decided to keep her maiden name. Returning from her honeymoon on June 12th, 1973, Dunfey headed over to city hall that evening and ran into a buzzsaw of a controversy that would eventually cost her a council seat.

It was made known to Dunfey before the June 12th meeting started that Lowell City Clerk William Busby was going to address her as “Councilwoman Sinicki,” rather than “Councilwoman Dunfey” as he had done previously. Busby gave the rather dubious explanation that a vote cast under her maiden name could be challenged in court. He added that according to his research on the matter, “A woman takes the name of her husband when she marries.” Tension rose in the chamber as Dunfey announced in a point of personal privilege just after the opening prayer that she would not respond to any name “other than that which I am known by.” As Busby called the roll for the first vote and reached the councilwoman’s name, the call of “Councilor Sinicki?” was greeted with silence. Busby was unphased. Throughout the 2 hour and 57-minute council meeting, he called out “Councilor Sinicki” a total of 30 times, only to hear no reply each time. He decided to mark her absent.

After the meeting, Dunfey also learned that Busby and the Lowell City Treasurer had decided to change the name of the councilor’s paychecks to “Gail Sinicki” as well. The checks would go uncashed.

That Dunfey did not allow herself to be bullied was no surprise. The feisty young woman from Lowell was just twenty years old when she was inspired to run for the city council in 1971. The 26th Amendment allowing 18 year-olds to vote had just been ratified and young people all over America were winning political seats that year (in Davison, Michigan, 18 year-old future documentary filmmaker Michael Moore would win a seat on the schoolboard, making him the youngest elected official in the country).

Dunfey had run a substantive, issue-oriented race. Although still a college student at Lowell State College, she made the standard political rounds --- neighborhood teas, senior centers, local diners, pushing her “fresh ideas.” On Election Day 1971, Dunfey would finish an impressive 5th place, one spot ahead of Paul Tsongas, a man who would one day win the New Hampshire Primary over Bill Clinton. On her first day on the council after being sworn in, councilors jostled to secure votes from one another in determining the next Mayor of Lowell. Customarily, a newly elected member would throw their support to one of the veterans but on each of the first two ballots, Dunfey announced her vote for mayor: “Gail Dunfey.”

In the fight for her name, Dunfey would win the battle but lose the war. First appealing to City Solicitor Peter Speronis, he found that Dunfey had every right to use her maiden name, thereby leading to the rather self-evident Lowell Sun headline: “Gail Dunfey is Gail Dunfey, Solicitor Rules.” Not fully satisfied with that confirmation, Dunfey also sought a court-backed declaratory judgment. On June 27, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Francis Good remarked that he did not see why “anyone in America would object to the use of her maiden name except perhaps her husband” and said that Busby had overstepped his authority. In fact, Mr. Sinicki had no problem at all with this wife’s decision, telling the press, “I don’t think that just because a woman takes a man’s name when they marry that she gives him respect --- that has to be earned through a relationship.”

However, Dunfey would find that not everyone agreed. Among many women, especially the older housewives and grandmothers she had done so well with in the 1971 election, Dunfey’s actions were not proving popular. Pollsters found that many women were downright “gleeful” to toss Dunfey out of office over the issue. One woman told researchers that “If you’re married you should be proud to take your husband’s name,” while another said, “if she’s ashamed of her husband’s name, she should be out.”  And one did not have to go any further that the Editorial Page of the Lowell Sun to find the patronizing attitude many men possessed. Next to a bizarrely offensive sketch of Dunfey dressed in a little girl’s outfit, the paper reported that “The people of Lowell have been following with rather bemused interest of late the effort of Councilor Gail Dunfey to retain her maiden name.”

As the name battle brought new attention to Dunfey, her re-election campaign did seem to take on a new determination. She sponsored an amendment against the Vietnam War and battled Mobil.  Her campaign literature also hit hard. Under the banner of “The hacks want their city back” Dunfey argued that “With one more crony on the council, the old political machine can once again come to life. The name of the game is patronage. And for Lowell it means corruption, inefficiency, payoffs, and wheeling and dealing with the big boys. And it means taxes and more taxes, just like it always does when a blundering, wastrel government administrates the rape of a city.” In response, columnist Chris Black continued the patronizing attitude of the Sun, commenting that voters no longer saw Dunfey as a “nice girl” or the “the girl next door.”

On election day it was clear the “name issue” had cost Dunfey her seat. In a closely contested vote in which the top 10 candidates would again gain seats on the council, Dunfey finished a disappointing 11th, missing re-election by a few hundred votes.

In 1975, Dunfey would receive an appointment to the Lowell Housing Authority while working as a human resource manager. She would then go on to attend the John F. Kennedy School in Harvard and later earn a PhD in clinical psychology. She and Sinicki would eventually divorce and Dunfey today still practices clinical psychology in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 2012, a much-changed Lowell Sun ran a somewhat lighthearted article recalling the small moment in the history of feminism back in 1973 entitled, “She’s keeping her maiden name? Oh my!” And indeed, it does seem like a long time ago --- and yet, it really was not so long ago at all.  

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