Maine’s first female governor, Janet Mills, center, is surrounded by female colleagues and a few of her new cabinet members on the steps inside the capital building in Augusta on Feb. 26. The number of female state lawmakers is up and for the first time the majority of the governor’s Cabinet are women. On Mills’ left is Rep. Margaret Craven of Lewiston; on Mills’ right is House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

AUGUSTA — March is Women’s History Month, and Maine women are making history, as are women nationally.

Gov. Janet Mills, Maine’s first female governor, has assembled her cabinet and for the first time in history women outnumber men, eight to seven. Another milestone: Two departments have female commissioners for the first time: Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

In the House chamber, Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport oversees a body with the highest number of women ever: 60. With 12 more in the Senate, the 72 total is also the highest ever, according to statistics at the Center for American Women in Politics. The percent of women — 38.9 in Maine’s Legislature — still makes them a minority, but a growing one, up from 34 percent in the last session.

In the Democratic House caucus, women this year make up the majority: 49 women to 40 men. On legislative committees, women have more leadership positions. In several cases both the House and Senate co-chairs are women.

The change in leadership has brought about a new energy in Augusta, “a real interest in collaboration,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said. “It’s a more welcoming environment.

Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon of Freeport, top right, presides over a session Feb. 26 in Augusta. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Nationally more women were elected in 2018 and more are considering running for president, Congress and state offices, according to EMILY’s List, a Washington, D.C. group that encourages Democratic women to become decision-makers.

‘A PHENOMENON WHOSE TIME HAS COME’

What’s happening, said Gov. Mills,  “is a phenomenon whose time has come. About 10 years ago Maine had a woman speaker of the House, a woman chief justice, a woman attorney general and a woman public safety commissioner. That was pretty cool,” she said. “We thought that was a trend, but it kind of stopped and took a downward turn. It’s gone up again.”

There are several reasons why. One is that more women are qualified, Mills said.

When looking for cabinet candidates, “at no time did we say, ‘Go find women.’ They just came to the head of the class because of their qualifications.”

Women lawmakers are filling more seats in Maine’s Legislature. Some join in singing happy birthday to a legislator Feb. 26 in Augusta. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

When her search committee started working on finding candidates, nearly 1,000 resumes poured in from interested people. “That was exciting,” Mills said.  The finalists “were a remarkable group of individuals. Many happened to be women.”

Another reason: In the Maine Legislature, some women ran for office to counter the attitude and policies pushed by former Gov. Paul LePage.

On a national level, more female Democrats have run for office to oppose President Donald Trump, said Emily Cain, executive director of EMILY’s List, a national political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic women to public office.

In 2015-16, 920 women nationally reached out and said they wanted to run for office, Cain said. At that time, the 920 was considered a large number.

“Since Donald Trump has been elected we’ve had more than 42,000 women reach out to say they want to make a plan to run for office. A lot of them ran,” and more are planning campaigns in the coming years, Cain said.

“It’s a sea change,” said Cain, a former Maine state representative and senator who also ran for Congress. “These women didn’t just march. They ran. They won. And now there’s even more.”

Mills said yet another motivator for women was the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, which “brought out a lot of pro-choice women of all parties.” That energized women “to realize we haven’t come as far as we thought.” The high court is crucial to choice and equal rights. “It was a wake-up call,” Mills said.

NUMBERS ARE GROWING BUT STILL SMALL

While women have increased their numbers in positions of influence, there’s a long way to go, University of Maine Political Science professor Amy Fried said.

“Certainly there has been a big increase in the number of women elected in 2018, and Maine has really made a big jump in terms of the governorship and women in the state Legislature,” Fried said.

National data from the Center for American Women in Politics shows that this year, nationally 28.7 percent of state legislators are women, compared to 25.4 percent last year.  

“It’s a jump. That’s nice,” Fried said, but noted that because women make up 50-plus percent of the voting population, there’s room for improvement.

The 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote was ratified in 1920. “We’re almost at the centennial.” That’s a long time, and the numbers should be higher, Fried said.

Nationally, Maine has the seventh highest number of female state legislators.

More women in office could bring about change, Fried said.

“Research shows women tend to be more oriented toward working together,” she said. “Their leadership style is more inclusive. They compromise.” Generally women are more interested in education, health-care issues and the health of communities. “So that can affect what policies are getting attention,” Fried said.

For Maine, Mills said she wants more women working in every career, including nontraditional roles of plumbers, electricians, welders, engineers.

Recently attending the National Governor’s Conference, Mills said she served on a panel with a woman who was head of the American Beverage Association, another woman who was CEO of Aetna. They were impressive, educated women “who are forging ahead,” Mills said.

She said she went to another session and found a panel of “10 men in suits and no women. I said, What the hell is that about? How can you be gender blind?” She said she doesn’t believe the all-male panel was intentional, but she left and instead watched the Supreme Court hear arguments.

People need to be more aware of such things and how it impacts others, Mills said. Years ago the Rotary Clubs didn’t allow women and were losing members. Since they allowed women in, “now they’re booming. We bring a lot of good. There’s nothing to be scared of,” she said.

Historically women have waited for someone to ask them to run, Fried said. “Now, women are waking up and saying, ‘I think I could do a good job.'” Girls who are interested in their communities, state and nation need to “put your hand up,” Fried said

“You don’t have to wait!” she said.

Women in office

  • Congress: House: 23.4 percent (102 out of 435)
  • Senate: 25 percent, (25 out of 100)
  • Governors: 18 percent (9 out of 50)
  • State legislatures: 28.7 percent
  • Mayors of cities larger than 30,000 people: 21.8 percent

Source: Center for American Women and PoliticsWomen’s History Month

Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month falls during the month of March. In 1987 Women’s History Week became a month after the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress. Since 1995, Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump have issued proclamations about the month. For more go to womenshistorymonth.gov. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of Maine ratifying the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919. Enough states ratified the amendment to make it law in 1920, giving women the right to vote.


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