AUGUSTA – Hanging high on walls of the State House are historic portraits of Maine’s former governors and other important politicians. They’re all men, except one. The lone woman is former U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine.

On Monday a national exhibit opened at the State House featuring the 14 current women U.S. senators.

The two sets of images are in contrast.

The fact that there’s only one woman’s portrait on the walls “is symbolic that we still have a long way to go,” said Seattle-based photojournalist Melina Mara, who created the “Changing the Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate” exhibit now on display on the third floor through April 8.

The fact that women make up 14 percent of the U.S. Senate is progress, Mara said. They are transforming the country’s most powerful governing body, she said. In 1992 there were only two women senators. But 14 is far below the percentage of women in the overall U.S. population, which is more than 50 percent.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was on hand for the exhibit’s opening, looked at a photo of herself and laughed. “I don’t always have my mouth open,” she said.

Beside her photo is one of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in serious discussion in a Washington, D.C., hall.

Mara shot the photographs, some from unusual angles, to show women working in Washington.

After viewing the exhibit, “a lot of people say, ‘The women don’t look very good,'” Mara said. Most of the women senators aren’t smiling in the photographs. Some look tired. Their hair isn’t always perfect.

“Well, they’re working!” Mara said.

Deciding that women in office weren’t getting the national coverage they deserved – Mara noticed that too often female senators were written about in features on recipes and families, not lawmaking – she decided to create the traveling exhibit “to give their numbers more of a voice.” The exhibit opened at the Smithsonian in 2003.

Collins called the exhibit “inspiring” and said she was lucky to have Margaret Chase Smith as a role model. When a high school senior in Caribou, Collins made her first trip to Washington and met with Smith.

“She took two hours out of her busy schedule to talk to me about importance of standing tall for what you believe in, her work on the Armed Service Committee. She gave me a copy of her famed Declaration of Conscience” speech, Collins said.

When Collins left Smith’s office, “I remember thinking that women could do anything. Now keep in mind this was way back in 1971, and we didn’t always realize that,” she said.

Looking back, meeting Smith was “my first step on a journey that led me to run for the U.S. Senate 25 years later,” Collins said, adding that she is proud to hold Smith’s seat, and proud of the 15 women senators who preceded her. “Three of the 15 are from the great state of Maine.”

Collins said her favorite photo in the exhibit isn’t of herself, it’s of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, “with her little daughter walking to this sea of men.” The sea of men were members of Congress assembled for a 9/11 ceremony. Except for Hutchinson and her daughter, the photo shows no women.

During the Senate recess, Collins said she’ll be visiting three Maine schools. Since she was elected, she has visited more than 100. “I want those little girls to see they can grow up to become a U.S. senator,” Collins said. “Without Margaret Chase Smith’s example, I never would be in the Senate today.”

The traveling exhibit is presented by the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, and is supported in Maine by the Maine Women’s Fund and the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Southern Maine.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.