AUGUSTA – It’s likely that Margaret Chase Smith, Maine’s first female senator, would be delighted to know that a pair of women are leading Maine’s Legislature for the first time.

Hannah Pingree of North Haven is House speaker and Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro is Senate president. Both are Democrats.

Mitchell, who served as House speaker in 1994, is the first woman in the country to have served as the top official in both state legislative houses.

Joining Pingree and Mitchell in Maine’s leadership ranks is Janet Mills of Farmington, Maine’s first female attorney general.

In another first, Maine’s congressional delegation is the first to include a majority of women. U.S. Rep.-elect Chellie Pingree, a Democrat and Hannah’s mother, will join Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe in Washington, D.C.

It all goes back to Margaret Chase Smith, said former Maine Gov. Angus King. “The fact that she was so successful for such a long time, it broke the barrier.”

Smith, a Republican, was a fixture in Maine politics, serving as a role model for more than 30 years.

“Maine people go for quality and I don’t think they care too much if you are male or female, they want good people,” said King, who also happened to appoint Maine’s Supreme Court chief justice, Leigh Saufley, the first woman to serve in that position. He said it was no “token” appointment.

“The motivating factor was she’s a terrific lawyer, judge and leader,” he said.

King said he had the privilege of working with Mills, Mitchell, Chellie Pingree, Collins and Snowe when he was governor. Their politics may be varied, but they share some characteristics, he said.

“These women are all smart, capable and hardworking,” he said.

It’s a Maine tradition

Collins agreed with King on the importance of Smith’s presence in Maine politics.

“I doubt that Olympia and I would both be in the Senate now were it not for the role model of Margaret Chase Smith,” Collins said in a phone interview. “For years, the Republican women in particular had led the way and now we’re seeing Democratic women serve in more and more positions of high office, so I think it speaks well for our state.”

Snowe, in a statement, said female leaders in the Legislature marked an important landmark in Maine history.

“This extraordinary achievement demonstrates how far we’ve come, especially since the days of my first election to the Maine House in 1973 and to the Maine Senate in 1976,” Snowe said.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, said that so many women serving in such diverse leadership positions might be a surprise if it was happening in another state, but not in Maine.

“Maine has a history of women, not just in those leadership positions, but of women’s participation … in general in the Legislature,” she said. “For many years, starting in 1979, when we first started keeping track, to 1994, Maine was in the top 10 for percentage of women in the Legislature.”

Maine ranks 12th among the 50 states, with woman making up 29.6 percent of the Legislature.

“Women are seen as part of the political and leadership fabric in the state and they have proven themselves in the long haul, going back to Margaret Chase Smith and now the current delegation,” Walsh said.

The only top office left in Maine yet to see a woman occupant is the governorship, though King and Walsh agree, it is only a matter of time.

“It’ll happen,” King said. “Sooner, rather than later.”

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