Maine Historical Society honors civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto, whose work has made a national impact for same-sex couples.

When Mary Bonauto majored in history, little did she know that she would be honored by the Maine Historical Society decades later as a regional and national player in shaping history.

“My parents taught me to live a purposeful life and look out for everyone. But I didn’t expect to be a ‘history maker,’ ” said Bonauto, who attended the event with her wife, Jennifer Wriggins, and their twin daughters. “We all know it takes the work of many to make the kinds of social and legal changes we call ‘making history.’ ”

Since 1987, when Bonauto joined one of three openly gay private law practices in Maine, she has been fighting to get rid of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Locally, she’s known for working to pass Maine’s same-sex marriage law – and then working to defend it. Regionally, she was lead counsel in the case that made Massachusetts the first state in which same-sex couples could marry. And nationally, Bonauto was one of three attorneys who argued before the Supreme Court in 2015 that state laws against same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. And won.

As was described in some depth during the Oct. 19 Maine Historical Society program honoring Bonauto, the key was going back to historical records and demonstrating the “evolving character of marriage,” said Nancy Cott, an American history professor at Harvard. “At the center of all these struggles is whether exclusion of same-sex couples from the protection of marriage was logical and defendable.”

“Mary is part of a very small, very elite group of civil rights activists on the national stage,” said Pat Peard, a community activist and a lawyer with Bernstein Shur. “She has always been grounded by history and has been keenly aware that this is only one more step in a story that isn’t finished.”

“A critical aspect of our work is to provide context and perspective that helps Mainers understand the issues that shape their lives today and to use history to help plot Maine’s course into the future,” said Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society.

“We’re starting with the present and connecting it with the past,” said historical society board member Kathy Smith of Freeport. “Tonight is thrilling for me as a board member.”

“It was eye-opening to understand how much history impacted the Supreme Court decision,” said lawyer Kim Watson.

“I like thinking about it from a historian’s perspective,” said Meredith Johnson of South Portland. “It’s not really what you think about when you’re living it in real time.”

“And Mary has done so much for our community, so it’s nice to see her being honored and to thank her,” said Anne McPheeters of South Portland.

“It’s great to see a lot of people who are not only about Portland and Maine history but about the people today,” said Daniel Ehlers of Portland. “You can feel the love. We do live in a beautiful world.”

Proceeds from the Maine History Maker event will help the historical society launch an expanded effort to capture the history of Maine’s LGBTQ community on the Maine Memory Network website (MaineMemory.net).

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and editor from Scarborough. Contact her at:

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