Cynthia Mendros: Lewiston, Maine: Leading the way for women

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Since moving to Lewiston, I have taken great offense to people around Maine and, sadly, even some here in town, who disparage this fine city. So, I decided to do a little research and set the record straight.

Many know that Maine is a leader nationally, being both the first state to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate (Republican Margaret Chase Smith), and the first state to elect two women to the U.S. Senate (Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins). Fewer know of Lewiston’s rich history of political women.

Since 1984, when Georgette Berube was first elected to the Maine Senate, Lewiston has been represented by a woman in the Maine Senate for 28 of the last 30 years (including Peggy Rotundo and Margaret Craven.). The only exception being 1996-1998 when John Jenkins was the senator, and his political firsts and successes would be grounds for another entire column.

In 1982, Berube was also the first woman to run for governor of Maine.

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My husband, Stavros Mendros, pointed out to me that just 15 years ago, in 1999, when he represented Lewiston in the Maine House, every major elected position in Lewiston was held by a woman.

The at-large seat I hold on the School Committee was held by Rotundo; she was also the chairwoman of the School Committee. The mayor was a woman. The council president was Joyce Bilodeau. The Androscoggin County commissioner for Lewiston was Patience Johnson and both state senators representing Lewiston were women: Georgette Berube and Neria Douglass.

Lewiston also elected the second woman mayor in Maine history, Lillian Caron, in 1975.

Other than my husband, not many Republicans have fared very well in Lewiston since the 1800s, but there have been a few. In fact, the last Republican to serve in the Maine Senate from Lewiston was Mary Kavanaugh, from 1950-1954. What an incredible lady she was.

Back then, state senators were elected by county. Voters could vote for three candidates and the top three vote-getters were elected. In a time where neither women nor Republicans did well, not only did Kavanaugh win, but in 1952 she was the top receiver of votes in the county.

Kavanaugh served as state president of the Maine Association of Realtors and was the first woman to hold a statewide presidential position in the nation when she served on the National Association of Real Estate Boards. She was later the first woman to be president of a regional organization when she was elected to lead for New England, New York and New Jersey. All from right in Lewiston.

I like to think that, despite the shallowness and bigotry that colors some people’s view of Lewiston, our community is better than that. We have a rich history of viewing people on their merits and not through a biased filter.

Men and woman should take pride in Lewiston and its pioneering commitment to equality. Other communities can make claims, but in Lewiston, we have facts.

Nowadays, some people tend to vote for a candidate just because that candidate is a woman but, back in the days of Kavanaugh and Berube, women had to work twice as hard to even be noticed. What pioneering leaders Lewiston was blessed with.

One final fact: In 1953 Lewiston Sen. Kavanaugh was the first woman to preside over the Maine Senate as president pro-tempore. In 1975, Lewiston Rep. Georgette Berube was the first woman to wield the gavel as speaker pro-tempore. Since one was a Republican and the other a Democrat, neither party can claim credit for both honors, but since they both came from Lewiston, we can.

Cynthia Mendros is a member of the Lewiston School Committee and co-chair of the Collins for Senate campaign. She lives in Lewiston.

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