Suffragist, community activist, public health crusader, Selectman, State Representative, State Senator, and aviator: Senator Leslie Cutler was a one-woman engine of the Twentieth Century, and a public servant in the most generous sense.
Leslie Cutler, a crusader for mental and public health, an activist in the woman’s suffrage movement and an outspoken champion of welfare and penal reform, juvenile needs, education and aviation began her illustrious 44 years of public service in 1924, merely four years after women won the right to vote. Leslie Cutler (1890-1971) was a one-woman engine of the Twentieth Century – suffragist, community activist, Selectman, State Representative and Senator, aviator – and a public servant in the most generous sense.
Leslie Cutler was born in 1890 in Boston. She graduated from Radcliffe College, and then went on to study biology and public health at MIT. In 1912, she married Roger W. Cutler (whom she later divorced) and had four sons and one daughter. Two of her sons, Robert and Roger Jr., rowed for the US Olympic Team in 1936. She also adopted a nephew, following her brother’s death.
Leslie Cutler helped to register women for the vote after the suffrage amendment passed. She ran for the Needham Board of Selectmen in 1923, and lost by just 57 votes. She ran again in 1924, winning her first public office with the support of newly-registered women voters. She was Needham’s first female Selectman, and only the second female Selectman in the Commonwealth. She ran, in part, because the Selectmen were Needham’s de facto Board of Health, and public health was her main area of policy interest. As a Selectman, she helped to establish the Board of Health as a separate entity. Two years later, she then ran and was elected to the town’s Board of Health, on which she served in for 41 years.
She ran unsuccessfully several times for the MA House of Representatives, before being elected for the Republican Party on her fourth try in 1938. Ten years later, she ran for the State Senate and won, becoming the lone woman in the Senate, and only the second woman in state history to occupy a Senate seat. Long-time friend, Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, noted that, “she was of great influence in trying to assist people who were incapable of taking care of themselves – in hospitals and in all ways that the state could help. Her fellow Senators had great respect for her pertinacity and her conscientiousness and her courage.”
One of Cutler’s most substantial accomplishments was her pivotal role in passing a bill to permit women to serve on juries. Her efforts consistently failed until 1949, when she was able to argue that women who could fill men’s jobs during the war were also well able to sit with them on juries. She sponsored the bill that required premarital syphilis tests, resulting in an increase in treatment and a reduction of cases. As chairman of a special legislative committee on mental health, Senator Cutler passionately fought for the passage of a bill which established community mental health centers. After taking flying lessons in 1942, she advocated for the funding to transform Logan International Airport into the major terminal that it is today (and also advocated turning the meadow now near Olin College into an airstrip).
Leslie Cutler also served Needham. She was President of the Needham Community Council for 28 years, the Director of the Needham Red Cross, and a member of the Needham Republican Town Committee. She founded local chapters of the YMCA and helped start the Needham Council on Aging.
In 1962, the state-owned park and “water lands” to the east of Route 128 was renamed Cutler Park in her honor. In 2001, she was named “Needham’s Outstanding Person of the 20th Century” by the Needham Historical Society – the only time such a designation was given, and a well-deserved tribute to such a determined, dedicated, and influential public servant.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum