First they marched, then they ran.

A historic number of women are running for office this year, many spurred by the election of Donald Trump, inspired by the Women’s March and invigorated by the #metoo movement that is resculpting the social landscape.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” said Maine Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth.

More than double the number of women are running for Congress in 2018 than in the 2016 cycle. Emily’s List, which trains and supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates, saw a huge spike in calls right after the Trump election. Since then, 26,000 women have contacted Emily’s List about running – up from 920 women who reached out after the 2014 election.

In Maine, Emerge Maine has seen interest double in its training programs for Democratic women candidates, and it added a new “boot camp” three-day intensive program last fall specifically for 2018 candidates – many of whom are running for the first-time.

“It’s a massive increase in interest,” said Julie McClain Downey, the national director of campaign communications for Emily’s List. “I’m not sure anyone saw it coming.”


We’ve been here before, in 1992.

That was the “The Year of the Woman,” when a record number of women were elected to Congress. And despite a steady stream since then, today the “Year of the Woman” is seen as more of a “moment” than the beginning of lasting change.

“The Year of the Woman didn’t sustain itself. This feels different,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven and the first woman to hold Maine’s 1st District seat.

“You’ve got a president who every day is reinforcing a lot of women’s feelings that (they’ve) got to take this seriously,” she said.

“Women are shocked to be in an era where politically and policy-wise, things seem to be going backwards – employment law, education, abortion, birth control: battles that older women thought they had fought in the ’70s,” she said.

“These policies a very conservative Congress has been pushing are not in sync with the American public or the Maine voter,” Pingree said.



Anne Gass

That has women like Anne Gass of Gray – a grant writer and author of a book on her suffragette great-grandmother – entering the political arena for the first time.

“I decided to run the night Trump was elected,” said Gass, an unenrolled candidate for House District 67. “I was laying in bed awake all night, thinking about what we would likely see happen in the coming year as a result of the election.”

“Some of the rhetoric in the campaign was very anti-woman, I thought. I was concerned about women’s reproductive rights. ‘What can I do about this?’ I asked myself,” Gass said.

“And I thought, it’s time to run. I realized now is exactly the right time to run.”

Anne Carney

For Anne Carney of Cape Elizabeth, it was a call from her distraught 28-year-old daughter the morning after the results came in.


“She called me at seven in the morning, just sobbing,” said Carney, who is running for House District 30. “She said I can’t imagine bringing a child into this world. … She was distraught that people felt so hopeless that they felt Trump was the best option, and she thought that the world he was painting seemed so full of anger.”

“That hit me so hard,” said Carney. “And it motivated me stronger than I’ve been motivated for anything in my life to do something to improve the outlook for the (next) generation.”

And it’s not just Democrats.

Republican Allyson Cavaretta, a third-generation business owner in Maine, said the time just seemed right for her, even if she wasn’t directly inspired to run because of Trump.

“I think in general, women are feeling more empowered to run and volunteer around campaigns and civic engagement,” said Cavaretta, who is a candidate for the House District 3 seat, now held by Democrat Lydia Blume.

Cavaretta and others say they were urged to run by Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, who five years ago co-founded She Leads – a Republican counterpart to Emerge Maine – to support Republican women with training and support.


“It really made a difference to me to get a woman’s perspective,” Espling said about her own entry into the political world. “I think that’s part of what we, as women, should be doing. Encouraging one another.”


Today’s first-time candidates aren’t held back by old ideas that they “aren’t ready yet,” recruiters and analysts say.

“The 2016 election was a galvanizing moment for women,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “There was a lot of anger, a lot of ‘I want to do something.’ ”

Veteran women Maine politicians welcome the surge.

“I think it’s exciting,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of 22 women in the U.S. Senate.


“When I started as a senator 20 years ago, there were only nine of us,” she said. “When I was a high school student, Margaret Chase Smith in 1971 was the only woman serving in the Senate.

“We clearly have a long ways to go, but certainly we are making tremendous progress in women serving in government positions in all levels,” Collins said.

Collins is experiencing some of women’s new confidence firsthand, she said.

“I’m often called upon to call Republican women who are considering running for office,” Collins said. She used to “constantly hear” women say they weren’t ready, or needed more experience.

That’s never come up when she’s called a potential male candidate, she added.

“It used to be the joke among those of us who make these recruiting calls that for a woman to talk international trade, she feels like she needs a master’s degree. A man just feels he needs to drive a Honda. There’s a little bit of truth to that,” she said.


But that “confidence gap” – the same gap researchers say keeps women from applying for a job she’s not perfectly suited to, or asking for a raise – is fading away.

“I think that’s changing,” Collins said. “There’s a new confidence among women now.”

The changing political landscape is boosting women’s confidence, Sinzdak said.

“There’s a widespread cultural shift,” Sinzdak said about all of the factors playing a role in more women running for office. “Is it the Trump win? The Hillary loss? Or the Women’s March? What is it? I think it’s impossible to disentangle all of those things.”

Women have also taken heart in the #metoo movement, relating to the stories of harassment and assault, and encouraged that men are being held accountable for actions that traditionally were dismissed or denied.

“I’m sure political scientists will be writing dissertations for years on this,” Sinzdak said. “The motivator might be different for different candidates, but it’s all related.”


For Millett, who is helping the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee recruit more women candidates, it’s all about the moment Trump got elected.

The Trump election was “a big bucket of cold water on our heads saying: Wake up! Pay attention! We are not gaining ground, and we can start losing ground,” Millett said.


Maine women have broken the political barriers before and a lot of that is due to strong role models, women politicians and activists say.

The first name on many women’s lips is Margaret Chase Smith. The moderate Republican from Skowhegan was the first woman to win election to both houses of Congress and the first whose name was placed in nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention, in 1964.

“When I was growing up and when Olympia (Snowe) was growing up, Margaret Chase Smith was senator the whole time,” said Collins. “When we ran, there were not questions about if women could represent the state of Maine. Margaret Chase Smith had already settled that issue.”


Snowe and Collins rose to leadership positions in Congress, and when Pingree was elected in 2008, Maine became the first state to have women as a majority of its congressional delegation.

That kind of role modeling matters.

“If you can’t see someone like you in that role, it’s hard to envision yourself in that role,” Collins said. “That’s why the numbers matter.”

It also doesn’t matter much if the woman is of the same political party.

“Hillary Clinton was so high-profile, even if you weren’t necessarily a fan of hers, seeing a woman in that role really did shape women’s perceptions of what a president can look like,” said Sarah Skillins Woodard, executive director of Emerge Maine.

The state also has more women elected to the State House.


Nationwide, Maine is ranked seventh in the nation for having the most women in the state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

The proportion of women in the Maine Legislature is 34 percent, compared to 25 percent average nationwide.

Part of that is because of the work done by party training for both Democrats and Republicans. Having those resources makes a big difference.

Espling, now the assistant minority leader of the Maine House of Representatives, co-founded She Leads about five years ago to fill a need.

There was “absolutely no focus on running women in the Republican Party,” she said.

“At least that’s what it felt like,” said Espling, who is running for the Maine Senate this year. “Democrat women had so many more resources, but for me as a more conservative person, I also felt like the Democrat Party didn’t speak for me as a woman.”



Experts say Maine is a good place for a woman to run for office for several reasons.

Aside from having strong role models, many of the traditional barriers that held women back from entering politics – a sense that it would take up too much time, difficulty raising funds or tapping into an existing male-dominated political network – are lower than in other states, experts say.

As a state of small towns, Maine voters also know their candidates personally. Women frequently hold local offices, such as town clerk or select board, and locals get to know them in those roles and see them in positions of authority.

The Legislature is a part-time citizens’ assembly, which can make it easier for a woman concerned about shortchanging other aspects of her life.

The state also has a history of electing independents, noted one activist.


“The fact that we have as many independents as we do lends itself to being more open to the person versus the party,” said Woodard, at Emerge Maine. “Voters might look at women as potential candidates more readily.”

Fundraising and tapping into a political network aren’t as daunting in Maine because the state doesn’t have a strong political party system, which can narrow the field for the primaries.

The Clean Election system for publicly financing campaigns can make it easier to run because candidates don’t have to raise as much money.

But Maine has never elected a woman governor, noted Collins, who ran and lost to Angus King in 1994.

“I do think women have a more difficult climb when it comes to executive offices, whether it’s mayor or governor or president,” Collins said. “I think it’s changing but it does still ring true today. In order for the glass ceiling to crack on executive positions in government, it needs to crack some more in executive positions in the corporate world. That is what needs to change so more people get used to seeing women in executive positions.”

This year the crowded gubernatorial field includes women in executive positions – Republican Mary Mayhew, the former head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services; Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat; and State Treasurer Teresea Hayes, unenrolled.



Women walk a careful line when describing what makes a female politician different. None of them wants to be pigeonholed as running just because she is a woman, or because they will only care about so-called “women’s issues.” The phrase itself is challenged today. The argument is that while there are issues such as reproductive rights that directly affect women, all issues – the economy, foreign policy, the military – are women’s issues.

But women do tend to have a different style of leadership, no matter their political party.

“Women have a broader perspective, a wider range of temperaments and a way of negotiating issues of importance to us that would not rank high with our male counterparts,” Millett said, “and a collegiality.”

“Women bring different life experiences than men do,” Collins said. “In my experience, women tend to be more collaborative, more likely to work across the aisle and have a more pragmatic problem-solving approach.”

Maine’s Olympia Snowe, a Republican, was famous for working across the aisle in the U.S. Senate and she decried the increasingly partisan atmosphere in her 2012 resignation .


Snowe said the number of women running for office today is “transcendent.”

“It’s extremely important,” she said. “Women are realizing that their voices can and should be heard.”

Snowe was the first woman to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress. She served 16 years in the House, plus three six-year Senate terms.

Being a woman, particularly at the time when there were not many women in Congress, made a difference, she said.

Snowe co-chaired the congressional Women’s Caucus in the 1980s and “we often commented on the fact that so many of the issues we drove as part of our agenda would have languished on the back burners if we hadn’t made a concerted effort to continue to advance them.”

Women also have a reputation for working harder, Collins said, recalling the day she and another female senator were the only ones to show up for work after a blizzard dumped 20 inches on the nation’s capital.


During the George W. Bush administration, Collins had an unexpected epiphany about her role when she was chairing the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

One day there was an important hearing at which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was testifying, Collins recalled. “And I looked to the left and the right of the dais, and it was all men,” she said. “Then I looked at the witness table, and it was all men. And it was the first moment it really hit me: This is extraordinary. There is not a single other woman either as a member of the committee or as a witness.

“I will confess, however, that I thought – ‘Hey, I’m in charge!'”

Espling had the same experience, realizing she was the only Republican woman in the leadership of the Maine House.

“Not all the time, but at times you feel sort of shut out, there’s still this sort of good-old-boy thing going on,” she said. “I don’t think the men intend to do it.”

It’s not enough to have just a few women either, Millett said.


“If you are two women in a room of 20 men, you could get overshadowed pretty quickly. If you are half (women), you have equal heft and you can make a difference,” Millett said.

Women voters flexed their power at the voting booth in December in Alabama, leading to Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in a Senate special election over Roy Moore. In November, a “blue wave” driven by engaged women flipped 15 seats and helped Democrats come just one vote from taking control of the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time since 2000 – and elected the nation’s first transgender candidate and several minority candidates.

“It’s healthier for our institutions to be reflective of the population as a whole,” Snowe said. But at about 20 percent women in Congress, “that’s still not enough for where I think we need to be politically and legislatively.”


Even seasoned politicians are surprised when they come across blatant sexist sentiments that show how women still face an uphill battle with some voters.

Espling said she once had a woman tell her during her campaign that she wasn’t sure she could vote for her “because she didn’t know if I should be away from home.” Another time, a reporter asked her how she juggled being a mother with elected office.


“I said to him, ‘You know what I want you to do? Go ask that same question to the man down the hall.’ And he said, ‘That was sort of a sexist question, wasn’t it?’

“There’s such a bias he didn’t think anything of that,” Espling said.

Collins recently blasted a reporter’s question about why she didn’t cry at a meeting with people with grave medical conditions as “unbelievably sexist.” She recalled a similar moment when she ran for governor in 1994.

“I’ll never forget it. This young banker came up to me, about my age, and said while he agreed with my positions on all the issues, he couldn’t imagine a woman running the state of Maine,” she said.

“I was so shocked that I didn’t even know what to say. I was literally rendered speechless. You’d think he’d be embarrassed, but no, he felt compelled to explain why he wouldn’t vote for me.

“That has stayed with me forever,” she said.


And it’s one of the reasons Collins makes it a point to visit Maine schools.

“I want those little girls growing up in rural Maine to know that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be, including a United States senator.

“I always tell those little girls that one of them will replace me in the United States Senate, but I don’t want them to run against me. I want them to wait until I retire.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

Twitter: noelinmaine

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