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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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THE PSYCHOLOGIST IN THE HOUSE

By the time she was in high school, Ruth Balser '69 was already marching for peace and civil rights.

Then, during her student-activist days at Rochester, she majored in psychology, taking particular interest in community psychology--the study of the social context in which psychological conditions exist.

It's not too surprising then that Balser grew up to be a clinical psychologist, and--as of last January--also a professional activist: the holder of an elected seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Although Balser says that she was the first psychologist ever elected to the Legislature, melding the professions of psychology and politics seems like a natural to her.

The Queens, New York, native affirms that her activism was ingrained practically from birth: "Growing up in a Jewish family in a post-Holocaust world, I was taught from as early as I can remember that it is everyone's job to oppose injustice."

(Another ingrained family tradition we might mention here is attendance at Rochester. Ruth is the daughter of Ida Brim Balser '31 and the mother of Micah Balser Goldwater '03.)

Taking her convictions with her when she moved to Massachusetts after graduation, Ruth Balser became involved with the movement for women's equal rights. She kept her hand in local politics there while she earned her Ph.D. and had children. Then, when Balser's predecessor vacated his seat in the Massachusetts House, she competed in a "hotly contested" Democratic primary, then ran unopposed in the general election.

Now a full-time legislator in an overwhelmingly Democratic state (where "there is no such thing as a post-Kennedy era," she says), Balser believes that her training and experience as a psychologist stand to serve her well in her second career. In voting on questions of public assistance for the poor, human services, or criminal justice, for instance, she says that the psychologist in her brings to the task a sensitivity developed from "a deep appreciation for the emotional reality of people's lives."

The issues closest to her heart that she hopes to address in her new role are health care, education, and the environment, with passage of a mental health parity act "as a top priority."

While asked about today's all-too-prevalent belief that to speak of a "sincere and committed politician" is to commit an oxymoron, Balser takes exception.

"I have a strong reaction to the current view of politics as dirty and expensive," she says.

While she's an advocate of campaign finance reform, she also says that "the great untold secret is how hard-working and committed most in politics are. I encourage anyone interested in running for office to do so. It is a challenging and exciting world, and the possibility of doing what is right and making a difference is still there."

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