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Marion West Higgins (R-Hillsdale) is sworn in as the Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly in January 1965. (Photo by Ace Alagna. Seton Hall University Libraries, The Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center.)

Trailblazer: Marion West Higgins

First woman to serve as NJ Assembly Speaker

By David Wildstein, February 09 2021 12:14 am

Marion West Higgins (1915-1991) was the first woman to serve as Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly.

The Bergen County Republican was also the first woman to serve as Assembly Majority Leader, and the first woman to serve as Acting Governor of New Jersey.

Higgins won a State Assembly seat in 1959.  Republicans swept all six Bergen County Assembly seats that year, with Higgins finishing third, 32,340 votes ahead of the top Democratic vote-getter, Laurence O’Connor.

She was re-elected in 1961, finishing second in a field of 14 candidates for seven Assembly seats, and again in 1963.

She became Majority Leader in 1964, and Speaker in 1965.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision, New Jersey ended the practice of electing one senator from each of 21 counties and instead apportioned State Senate seats based on population in 1965.  Bergen County had four Senate seats under the new plan.

In 1965, as the sitting Assembly Speaker, Higgins sought the Republican nomination for State Senate in a sharply divided primary election on a ticket backed by Bergen County Republican Chairman Walter Jones, a former state senator and gubernatorial candidate.

Higgins finished first in the nine-candidate field, running 13,529 votes ahead of incumbent Pierce Deamer, who lost renomination as part of a GOP war that year.

Assemblyman Peter Moraites (R-Alpine), former Assemblyman Nelson Gross (R-Saddle River), and former Freeholder Arthur Vervaet (R-Oakland) ran with Higgins.

Deamer ran his own ticket that included Assemblymen Richard Vander Plaat (R-Fair Lawn) and Harry Randall (R-Westwood), and former Assemblyman Carmine Savino (R-Lyndhurst).

The Jones slate won the primary by a 3-2 margin.  Deamer trailed Vervaet by 10,419 votes.

In the general election, she faced Saddle Brook Mayor Jeremiah O’Connor, Teaneck Mayor Matthew Feldman, former deputy state attorney general Ned Parsekian, and Hasbrouck Heights Democratic Municipal Chairman Alfred Kiefer, the general counsel to the New Jersey Synod of the Lutheran Church.

With Gov. Richard Hughes carrying Bergen County by 41,000 votes in his re-election bid, 1965 turned out to be a big Democratic year.

Democrats won all four Senate seats – their first win since William Ely defeated Hackensack Harry Harper in 1931.  Higgins finished sixth in the race for the four seats, losing by 4,809 votes.

Higgins was the only woman to serve as Majority Leader until Bonnie Watson Coleman won the post in 2006, and the only woman Speaker until Sheila Oliver was elected in 2010.

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