From the Vineyard Gazette edition of May 6, 1977:
The first woman to be elected selectman in Chilmark remembers being the sixth Democrat to register in the town. The tale of being in the political minority in a staunchly Republican up-Island community is one Betty Ann Bryant enjoys recounting.
She may be heard on this and other subjects most mornings in Haynes restaurant. And just as Haynes is not a traditional restaurant by most standards, Betty Bryant is not a traditional lady.
Her ideas and her social concerns have often set her apart from the majority, whether on the regional school committee or the Chilmark town meeting floor. And when she couldn’t vote, she picketed. And once her efforts closed the welfare office down.
“I formed a welfare rights group here which was a very radical thing to do in ’69 and ’70. I was trying to get low income housing for the poor, food stamps and all that. These were things people on Martha’s Vineyard had never heard of before and a lot of people just didn’t want to know about it,” she said in an interview this week.
Betty Ann knew then such stands would create strains. “The issues were so foreign to Martha’s Vineyard there was bound to be a reaction.” And then, more thoughtfully: “I guess there has been some strife because of it.”
Betty understands the mixed reaction she received at first from the Islanders she grew up with in Edgartown. “I’ve gone through so many changes, it makes sense. There have been extremes in my life,” she says.
It happened in her late twenties. Already up-Island with her husband Danny and their daughter for some years, “I still was pretty narrow in my scope. I believed people behaved certain ways for certain reasons.”
The Viet Nam War was on and “I never thought there was any other option except that we had to go in there and fight. I was really carrying the war banner.” She credits her friends at that period with “showing me alternatives. I started looking at things another way, although I think part of it was always there with me.”
At her kitchen table, Betty Ann reaches for another cigarette, complaining of the habit but suspecting the new pressures of a selectman’s job may make it impossible to quit. She is dressed, as she always is, in something she must have grabbed for comfort: jeans that are patched, a worn turtleneck and a warm sweater for a blowing day. Appearances don’t concern her — issues do.
The change which she says happened in the late sixties began with a job as an outreach worker for an anti-poverty program. Before winning the job, Betty Ann had cleaned houses.
Her concern for the poor was long-standing, she said, because of her Edgartown upbringing, a childhood that was spent in foster homes and marked by poverty. She is not embittered by the past but says, “Part of what I do is to try to prevent bad happenings in families that I saw in my own.” And when she began work with welfare, she added, “It came easily to me because I knew all the families who needed it most.”
She was angered by the attitudes of many Island leaders. “The people in power believed that there weren’t poor people here, and if they were they were lazy, they were drunk or they were any number of things, and I just refused to believe that. I just refuse to believe that people can’t be helped.”
She now grimaces when she recollects her political naivete. “I had a couple of bad years because I was always getting the wrong people furious at me. I was just a disaster. Many times I’d be sitting with friends who’d say to me, ‘Betty, why don’t you try it this way instead?’ There were many bombs.”
It is a job to recall all the battles Betty Ann has waged in the last 10 years. If not welfare, it was birth control and abortion. If not food stamps, then she and others pushed for a human development program at the regional high school. There were always others involved, but even she will tell you her voice is the loudest,
If her views were representative only of a minority and distasteful to many more, how did she win the selectman’s seat in Chilmark with a two to one margin? “I don’t understand it,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t figure it out. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because I am outspoken and straightforward. I know some of the people who voted for me certainly don’t agree with my politics, but they feel at least they’ll get a sense of what’s happening.”
She says she was pushed into the selectmen’s race. But she told supporters “from day one that I would not get off the school committee.” A private attorney has advised her there is no conflict in holding both offices.
After a month in the office, the lady “selectperson,” as she calls herself, realizes “it’s important for the board to work together.” But she adds, “I’ll only compromise so far.” She now says she will choose her battles and her priorities carefully, looking to catch “the bigger fish in the sea.”
Compiled by Hilary Wall