Maine elected its first female governor two years ago, a celebrated milestone that was also arguably overdue: 29 other women around the country became their state’s first female governor first, as far back as Wyoming in 1925, according to the Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.

This summer, in advance of Women’s Equality Day, number-loving WalletHub ranked Maine the second best state in 2020 for women’s equality, behind Hawaii. To arrive at that, it used 17 measures including the mix of lawmakers, ability to afford doctor’s visits and disparities in entrepreneurship rate, poverty rate and income.

Awesome news!

Except, according to Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women — and, real talk, did you know Maine had a Permanent Commission on the Status of Women? — the state’s looking at 2060 before there’s earnings parity between women and men here.

Even that has a caveat: That’s if current trends continue. And it’s for white women only.

Two hundred years after Maine’s statehood and 100 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, a mix of statistics and milestones show Maine women making equality strides, leaving progressive markers in their wake and still having room left to go.


A woman identified only as Mildred, “waiting for the Boston boat at Bayside Warf,” in Waldo County, in this undated photo. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine

Picture it, Maine, 1820 . . .

Back then, life was largely home-bound with clothing, sheets and quilts to make, yarn to spin, food to plant, harvest and process, and on and on.

“It was very labor-intensive for most women. Statehood meant little to them,” said Jennifer Pickard, adjunct faculty in Maine Studies and History at the University of Maine, who with Mazie Hough co-authored a piece on women for UMaine’s “Maine turns 200.”

“Along the coast, you would have the people of greater privilege because of all of the money that could be made from shipping,” she said.

So captain’s wives 200 years ago, for instance, might have afforded help, but for other women, it was work, work, work and not so much reward.

If your betrothed went out to sea, a woman could become, temporarily, a “deputy husband,” Pickard said. “You could negotiate business that needs to be done, but it was only in your husband’s absence.”


Early Maine suffrage leader Florence Brooks Whitehouse Submitted photo

Women essentially belonged to their fathers until they belonged to their husband, said Maine author Anne B. Gass, who sits on the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.

“They really didn’t have many more legal rights than cattle in the barn,” Gass said. “When they married, they were considered ‘civilly dead,’ that’s kind of how they described it. Under the law, once you were married, everything you owned as a women belonged to your husband then. It could be your wages, your inheritance, your children — women had no rights to anything.”

Pickard cautioned that it’s challenging to speak broadly to the experiences of Native American and Black women back then. There were only 323 Black women over age 14 living in Maine in 1820, according to her piece with Hough.

Flash-forward 100 years to the 19th Amendment, giving most women the right to vote.

Gass’ great-grandmother was a leading activist in Maine and the subject of her book “Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage.”

“Up until 1915, women’s suffrage tended to be just another club activity,” said Gass. “You’d show up at some affluent women’s house, you’d have tea, someone would sing or play the piano or both and then you’d get down to some business. They were working on it, I’m not saying they weren’t. It was less political and they kind of accepted that it would be a slow process.”


Her great-grandmother was considered “radical” at the time, she said, chairing the Maine branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, picketing President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election and becoming the first president of the Suffrage Referendum League of Maine.

She also penned an occasional column in the Sun Journal for two years, between 1914 and 1916, on women’s suffrage, sometimes with Helen Bates.

Once, after a fellow Congressional Union organizer stayed with her in Portland, the organizer reported back to headquarters about some of the women she had encountered: “They’re just like mahogany furniture, they’re so stuffy and square.”

“I’ve always loved that quote,” said Gass. “I think she captured that perfectly. There was a sense that they had their own bubble going here. This is how women behaved, you’ve got to do all the social niceties and you couldn’t be rude to men, you couldn’t make the men feel upset or angry about anything. It’s one of the reasons why I think it took women so long to win suffrage — they kind of accepted the rules that had been dictated to them.”

By then, more Maine women were working outside the home.

Students at the Eastern Maine School of Nursing in Bangor circa 1915. The handwritten caption on the photograph reads, “Sheep Party – ‘Sox.'” Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine

Eva Shorey traveled around Portland in 1907 counting women at work for the 21st annual report of the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics for the State of Maine, which Pickard found. Among her counts: 500-plus saleswomen (the single largest occupation) earning an average $7 a week, 111 telephone operators earning an average $8, eight journalists earning an average $10, 25 hat makers earning an average $8 to $10, 130 making paper boxes for an average $8, and 115 making gum for an average $5 to $6.


So, not killing it. The average cost of living for a room and meals was at least $5 a week.

“The months and often years which it takes some girls to fit into their particular niche in life among strangers is not a pleasant period to contemplate, and yet how many women, who have courageously shouldered the burden of not only supporting themselves, but helping others as well, go through this experience?” Shorey wrote.

How many, indeed.

2020: Better news. Sort of.

In the last 20 years, women have seen 20.6% growth in real earnings in Maine compared to just 3.7% for men, according to figures out of the Office of the State Economist, Amanda Rector.

In 2000, Maine women earned 62 cents on the dollar, compared to men. Last year, that was closer to 72 cents.


So, hard-fought-but-still-28-cents-to-go yeah?

In 35 occupational categories tracked by the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey looking at median pay, Maine men out-earn women in all but two categories — community and social service occupations, and personal care and service occupations — the latter of which at a 180% margin of error suggests that really, it’s maybe just the one.

Among the reasons behind the pay spread: “Men and women tend to choose different educational and occupational paths, which offer different levels of earnings,” said Glenn Mills, deputy director at Maine’s Center for Workforce Research. “Construction and industrial manufacturing jobs tend to be held mostly by men, and teaching, administrative support and health care service jobs tend to be held mostly by women, for example.”

On average, men work more hours than women, often for family reasons, he said, and women generally don’t stay as long in their jobs due to reasons like leaving the workforce to raise children.

“The 19th Amendment . . . only gave women the right to vote,” said Gass. “It didn’t enable them to do very much

Maine author Anne B. Gass Submitted photo

else — a ton more work was required for women to be able to go to colleges and universities that had been limited to men. . . . To have credit in your own name. To serve on a jury. All that stuff had to be litigated, and they had to work on getting legislation passed for women to make those advances one by one.”


Could her great-grandmother look around today, “I think she’d be glad about all the progress that women have made; I think she’d be frustrated that there wasn’t more equality,” Gass said.

The permanent commission’s 2020 report flagged issues around the workplace (49.2% of women report having been sexually harassed on the job) and advocated for increased work around domestic and sexual violence, increased health care spending and highlighting Maine women role models in K-12 classes.

Milestones along the way

Voter registrations don’t track voters’ sex, so it’s impossible to say with what ferocity Maine women are putting the 19th Amendment to use, but Maine has had a historically high, and brag-worthy, voter turnout.

Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics counts a number of firsts for the state: Margaret Chase Smith as the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, as well as the first woman to pursue a major party presidential nomination. Olympia Snowe as the first woman to be elected to the State House, State Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

In August, Gov. Janet Mills talked about both of her grandmothers voting in the presidential election of 1920. Both women were later elected themselves to school boards in Farmington and Ashland.

“I like to think that they would be proud that, within a hundred years of being able to vote for the first time, their granddaughter would be the first woman governor of Maine,” Mills wrote. “We have gained important ground in the last 100 years, but we all know women, especially women of color, are still underrepresented and still disadvantaged because of sex. The suffrage movement’s victories were hard won, but the work is not done. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, let us all honor those who fought for our right to vote by recommitting ourselves to the long road toward equal rights for all.”

This picture of a group of women picking hops is identified as having been taken at Farmers Hill in Andover, circa the 1880s. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine

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