October 20, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Sisterhood trumps politics as liberal and conservative bond over tea

Cynthia Dill and Susan Dench are newfound friends.

Maybe we shouldn’t make too much out of a simple Twitter exchange.

click image to enlarge

Cynthia Dill, above, a liberal, has a new friend in Susan Dench, a conservative.

2012 file photo Gordon Chibroski/ Staff Photographer

Or maybe, as we survey the political rubble from the federal shutdown and what some are now calling the nation’s “near-debt experience,” hope springs eternal from a few simple tweets.

It started earlier this month, right around the time the federal government came to a grinding halt.

Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, the liberal Democrat who finished a distant third in Maine’s recent race for U.S. Senate, logged onto the Bangor Daily News website and read a debut column by Susan Dench, a self-described conservative from Falmouth whom Dill had never met.

Let’s go to the Twitter feed:

Dill: Agree to disagree over a conservatini sometime? I take mine with bean sprouts and kale. Congrats on the column.

Dench: Thanks, Cynthia, would love to get together – maybe we can find common ground over a Libertini? Next week?

Dill: oh, heck. Let’s compromise! One each for both of us. Next week sounds great.

Dench: I can do coffee any day but Wed, drinks Th or week of 10/21. What works for you?

I stumbled across this unlikely banter last week while checking out the Informed Women’s Network, founded earlier this year by Dench. The group finds itself in the headlines via leaked recordings of Gov. Paul LePage’s speech to its members last week – an hourlong address that, as usual, has the fact-checkers now working overtime.

LePage’s tall tales aside, I wondered if Dill and Dench actually followed through with their “tini” date.

Turns out they did – a week ago Friday. (Although they both eschewed the hard stuff and settled on matching cups of tea.)

And did they get through it without causing, shall we say, a disturbance?

Back to Twitter:

Dill: Thanks for the tea. Let’s keep in touch!

Dench: Thank you, Cynthia, and will do – I had a blast!

Struck by the sheer sisterhood of it all, I contacted Dill and Dench and asked if they’d like to do an encore – this time with a slack-jawed columnist along for the ride.

My question, as we settled in at a downtown Portland coffee shop: What in the name of the Great Political Divide is going on here? As the nation reels from its nastiest political fight in recent memory, why would you two even consider meeting each other, let alone delve into your many differences?

Because, they explained, they actually have some things in common.

Starting with the obvious: They’re both women.

“Men come at this from a different standpoint than women do,” said Dench. “With women, you talk about the personal first because you’re trying to establish a common bond. You’re trying to get to that common ground.”

Added Dill, a litigation lawyer, “There’s nothing I need to convince her to do.”

Thus they can wade into something as fundamental as what Dench still calls “women’s lib” without so much as a raised voice.

In the past month alone, Dench lamented, two women have actually apologized to her because they’re “just a wife and mother.” Important as those jobs may be, she said, they feel like they’ve let the feminist movement down by not doing more with their lives.

“I think women’s lib is one of the worst things that’s happened to women,” said Dench. “It presented a lot of opportunities, but I really think it knocked us off a pedestal. Frankly, I like being on a pedestal.”

I looked over at Dill, half expecting her hair to be on fire.

“I disagree,” Dill said calmly. “But I think it’s a conversation that is worth having. And if it’s about women’s issues and it is about whether or not women’s lib is the cause of good or bad, it’s important that publicly it be a conversation between women – not having Rush Limbaugh tell us how it is.”

It was but one of many moments when these two women, if they so chose, could have opened fire on each other.

Dill, after all, is the state legislator who turned many a head when she launched an online petition demanding a citizen-recall process for elected officials in Maine – starting, of course, with LePage.

Dench, on the other hand, repeatedly referred to the Obama residence in a recent column as the “Spite House.”

Yet here they sat, actually trading compliments between sips of tea, insisting that political disagreement need not derail civil dialogue.

What’s more, even when it came to such a lightning-rod catch-phrase as “fiscal responsibility,” each embraced the concept without so much as a sideways glance at the other.

Noted Dench: “A lot of us believe in the same thing. We just put different labels on it.”

Added Dill: “Everyone wants to be fiscally responsible. It all comes down to, ‘What is fiscal responsibility?’ ”

To Dill, it means not blowing an estimated $24 billion on a government shutdown. To Dench, it means not reflexively adding to a national debt that’s now “$17 trillion and climbing.”

To both, however, it meant listening to the other’s viewpoint without the eye-rolling, finger-pointing and constant interruption that fuel most male-dominated political debates.

Dill came prepared to illustrate that point, producing reports of two studies highlighting the near-absence of women’s voices among those who both make and report the news. One was by the Women’s Media Center, founded by Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem; the other came from the World Association for Christian Communication.

“The lens tends to be through men. The voices that inform the public and collect ideas and express opinions are male,” said Dill. “I think it helps everybody to have both.”

“I completely agree with you, Cynthia,” replied Dench. “I think it is a male-dominated conversation.”

As they finished their tea, part of me wondered if this was simply the inevitable crossing of paths between two women practiced in the art of self-promotion.

But then I reminded myself that I dragged them under this spotlight, not the other way around. And that, however publicly they set up their first sit-down, they met in private with nothing more to gain than each other’s newfound friendship.

A lesson for us all?

“What I love about Cynthia is she thought she could make a difference and she ran (for public office),” said Dench. “After all the slings and arrows she’s been through, she still had the courage to run. That takes guts ... that takes guts.”

“I figured we can meet each other so when I read (Dench’s column), I’ll know the woman behind the article,” said Dill. “I’ll know she’s funny and smart and educated and trying to make a difference. And that’s what we have in common.”

Libertini, conservatini – take your pick.

Maybe the whole country should invite itself out for a drink.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

Twitter: @billnemitz

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