Editor’s Note: Part two of three. Read part one here.

It was an ironic undertaking for a man who had just defeated the nation’s only female U.S. Senator: introducing a bill to enable women to attend the military service academies. But it was vintage Bill Hathaway.

The year is 1973. Upon showing up for work at his new Senate office, one of the first pieces of mail to arrive was from a female Maine high school student who wanted to apply to West Point. His reply, “Fine, I’ll put you on the list.” The response from the Army? “We can’t accommodate women because we have no toilet facilities for them.”

“That infuriated me,” Hathaway recalled for me recently.
The freshman Democrat then vowed, “To hell with you. I’ll make sure all women have a chance to apply.”

Such determined words were followed by a helping hand from an unlikely source: Conservative South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, who rushed to Hathaway’s support when Hathaway offered the proposal to the full Senate.

The Senate then overwhelmingly adopted the bill, though it would be almost two years before the House followed suit, in time to enable women in 1975 to apply to America’s service academies. (Maine, as often the case, was ahead of the nation: Castine’s Maine Maritime Academy admitted women in l974.)

The bill allowing women at the service academies illustrates significant traits of Sen. Hathaway: An ability to overlook partisan differences in both personal and public life, and legislative skill in attracting bipartisan support for landmark legislation.

Hathaway has not, however, remained a focus of attention in his years since leaving Congress, even though he served as long as the better-known George Mitchell. He also, like Mitchell, continued to serve in the private and public sector with respect and distinction.

Before catching up with Hathaway’s post-Congrss years, let’s look at what he did while there.

Hathaway arrived in Washington in l965, a Democratic member of the House just elected from one of the most rural and historically Republican Congressional districts in the country. He was just 39.

His first year in Washington, Hathaway toed the line typical of freshman Democrats of that era: support for President Lyndon Johnson, who had just won overwhelming re-election. This included backing the president on civil rights, anti-poverty, federal aid to education and Medicare in the first year of the 89th Congress. (Which was still the most active of any session since the New Deal.)

But the ex-World War II prisoner-of-war and Maine attorney was not one to always run with the flock. Like many Mainers in Congress, Hathaway declared his independence.

An early instance was his vote to seat Congressman Adam Clayton Powell in 1967. The flamboyant Harlem Representative, who stood accused of wrongfully misusing Congressional expense accounts, was excluded by a 307 to 116 vote of the House. Those siding with Powell, however, included Hathaway, which didn’t curry favor with his more conservative constituents.

Votes on the 1968 Gun Control Act also demonstrated Hathaway’s swim against the tide tendencies. His favoring the act understandably aroused unrest in a district with a large National Rifle Association membership.

The same year Hathaway introduced a bill creating what would later become known as “OSHA,” or the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. When it became law in 1970, it was the result of compromises forged with GOP Congressman Bill Steiger. Though Hathaway’s lead on the issue was not as controversial as his vote favoring gun control, the position would render him persona non grata with some industrial and business leaders, even while winning support from organized labor.

After his upset of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in 1972, Hathaway continued his independent ways. Though such independence would – in the case of winning women the right to be admitted to the service academies – result in a triumphant outcome, it would also put Hathaway on the losing side of the aisle. In 1973, he became one of only three senators to vote against confirming Gerald Ford as vice-president.

Despite the isolated path Hathaway would sometimes pursue, he nevertheless emerged successful in some 200 bills he sponsored, not to mention others whose concepts he initiated, but were commandeered by others.

Hathaway thus supported a gay rights plank adopted at the 1974 Maine Democratic Convention, a time long before such a measure would gain traction with the rank and file, even though it did prevail among Democratic activists.

By 1975, Hathaway broke ranks with leaders of both parties to oppose a proposed income tax cut. It was, as the Portland Press Herald’s Washington correspondent Don Larrabee remarked at the time, “a gutsy point of view that defies the conventional wisdom.”

Though Hathaway’s independent views in the House never seemed to imperil his tenure – he coasted to re-election three times – confronting his 1978 re-election to the Senate was a different matter. But in this case, maybe more image than values may have cost him a second term, as his opponent was someone who was often compared to Hollywood icons like Robert Redford: William Cohen.

Hathaway’s career since leaving Congress and his views on the present dilemma that face the nation are the subject of a future column.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

Bill Hathaway, former Maine senator


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.