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Fewer women in state politics Maine out of top 10 in female legislators
January 28, 2005: news_stories
Reprinted with the permission of the Bangor Daily News.
By Jeff Tuttle OF THE NEWS STAFF
The number of women serving in state legislatures around the country has leveled off, and Maine - once among the states with the highest percentage of women in power - has dropped out of the top 10, according to a recent report.
"I don't think it's because of a lack of interest, it's a lack of time," Rep. Pat Blanchette, a Bangor Democrat, said in an interview shortly before Tuesday's State of the State address. "You see more and more women, I think, in local offices, but coming down here is an entirely different thing."
The report was featured in this month's State Legislatures magazine, a publication by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group that follows trends in state government.
This year, Maine ranks 23rd in the nation with 44 women, or 24 percent, among its 186 lawmakers. In 2002 Maine was ranked 10th in the nation with 55 women lawmakers, down from a high of 61 in 1991, when the state ranked second.
Nationally, the percentage of women lawmakers in state government has been steady since 1999 at about 22.5 percent. Although representing a fourfold increase since 1971, the recent plateau is worrisome to researchers with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
With women making up just over half of the population - both in Maine and the United States - it's not unreasonable to strive for greater representation, said Kathleen Casey, the group's associate director. She cited her group's findings that women were less likely to seek public office unless they were recruited to do so.
"We want to know why," said Casey, who attributed the trend in part to a recent drop-off in recruiting efforts. "Women have to put themselves forward and run for open seats and seats they really have a chance of winning."
Colorado and Maryland now have the highest percentage of women legislators, at 34 percent, according to the report. The states with the lowest percentages are South Carolina and Alabama, respectively at 9 percent and 10 percent.
Historically, Maine has been relatively fertile ground for women politicians, Casey said, except for the fact it is the only state never to elect a woman to a statewide office in state government. While voters in some other states elect lieutenant governors and attorneys general, the governor is the only elected statewide officer in Maine.
Maine does have the distinction, however, of being one of only three states - along with California and Washington - to have two female U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Also, U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.
Back at the State House, the study's numbers suggest a wave of women legislators arrived in the House in the early 1990s, later ascended to the Senate, and dropped off the political stage in the early years of this decade, at least partially due to term limits.
Sen. Debra Plowman, a Republican whose district stretches from Hampden to Dexter, was part of that initial push into the State House. Termed out of the House in 2000, Plowman returned to the Senate this year after besting another woman for the seat in the 2004 general election - and before that, two men in the primary.
But even when the number of women lawmakers was at its peak, Plowman remembered a telling conversation with her then 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, that accurately - although not in the most politically correct terms - assessed the makeup of the House at the time.
"[Olivia] said, 'Do you remember that job you had with all the men with gray hair and no hair?'" Plowman recalled Thursday during a break at the State House. "When it's that evident to a 7-year-old, it's a strong statement."
Although there might be fewer women in Augusta this year than in years past, their influence may be as great if not greater, with many of them holding influential positions.
Sen. Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport, is the Senate president, the second woman to hold the position in as many years. Nine of the Legislature's 17 joint standing committees have women chairing them.
In the judicial branch, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley presides over Maine's highest court. And in the executive branch, Gov. John Baldacci's chief of staff and seven of his 19 cabinet members are women.
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