More than half of the population is made up of women, yet men continue to dominate public office. Just look at the Maine Legislature, where only 28 percent of the seats are filled by women.

Recognizing the need to equalize political representation, a group of Democratic women joined together in 2006 to found Emerge Maine, a training organization that encourages women to seek public office.

On Wednesday night, the group held a private party at the Angela Adams design store in Portland to celebrate Women’s History Month and raise funds for the organization.

“Politics isn’t something that’s only for men or (only for) women,” Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who was one of the party’s hosts, told me.

She said it’s important to have both genders participate in lawmaking, since “women have a slightly different perspective on issues.”

By preparing women to run for political office, Emerge Maine seeks to infuse more of the female perspective into public discourse.

“Our fifth training class is in session,” Katie Mae Simpson, the organization’s director, told me. “We’ll have 19 graduates this year. We have 68 alumni. Four of the freshmen female Democrats in the House are Emerge alumni and two of our alumni were re-elected.”

Every year, the organization runs a seven-month campaign training program.

“We want to give women all the tools they need to run a campaign,” Simpson said. “We build their skills and connect them with other women.”

Denise Tepler, who is an alum of the training program, said these skills are crucial.

“When you think about running for office, you don’t know where to start,” Tepler told me. “Emerge teaches you where to start.”

“This program has really evolved into a leadership organization, not just a campaign skills organization,” board member Jo Dondis added.

After we all mingled and enjoyed wine and appetizers for about a half hour, Emerge Maine board President Amy Watson Saxton kicked off the speaking portion of the event.

She started out with a smile, saying “I’d like to welcome the two men in the room.”

She was referring to Congresswoman Pingree’s fiance, S. Donald Sussman, and her communications director Willy Ritch, neither of whom seemed fazed by being the minorities in the crowd.

Before introducing Laura Fortman, the former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Labor and the party’s keynote speaker, Saxton said “It’s as if the headlines were written for tonight.”

She was referring to the news which broke earlier that day of Gov. Paul LePage’s intent to remove a mural depicting the state’s labor history from the Department of Labor lobby and to rename the building’s conference rooms, which are currently named for prominent labor advocates.

Fortman, who served from 2003 to 2010, picked up on this theme to talk about the accomplishments of the nation’s first female cabinet member Frances Perkins, who is depicted in the mural and for whom one of the conference rooms is named.

“Frances Perkins was studying in New York City” on the day 100 years ago when the infamous fire broke out in the city’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Fortman said. With exits blocked, 146 young women died in the fire, many of them leaping to their deaths. Perkins witnessed the sight firsthand.

“She said the New Deal was born that day,” Fortman told us.

Perkins who served as the secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, championed issues including the minimum wage, child labor laws and basic worker safety that became well known parts of the New Deal.

“She didn’t just see that people had died in that fire and give up in despair,” Fortman said. “She made sure there were fundamental changes.”

Perkins had family ties to Maine, and today the Frances Perkins Center is based at the family homestead in Newcastle.

A case could be made that some of Perkins’ moxie came from her roots in the independent soil of Maine.

According to Emerge program alum Sara Bloom, who moved to Maine after living in Cincinnati, “More is expected of women in Maine. Here in Maine, you really feel like you have a voice.”

The challenge comes in getting more of those voices into public office.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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