The Blaine House display about former U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith features current Gov. Janet Mills posing with her in a 1993 photo. This year’s decorations featured items borrowed from the Maine State Museum and other museums in displays about famous Maine women. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Well here we are – another decade has passed.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the millennium, although Big Al’s still had a nice selection of Y2K books on the shelf when I last went in there.  Almost 20 years since 9/11.  And, as I mentioned briefly last week, it’s now been 100 years since the women of Maine got the right to vote.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected]

Women wanted to vote long before that, of course.  According to the National Park Service website, a group of women from Bangor sent a petition to the state Legislature in 1857.  They demanded a constitutional amendment that guaranteed votes for women, but the petition was ignored.

A decade later, Maine saw its first suffrage march – sort of – when a group of factory workers marched in Lewiston’s Fourth of July parade with a banner that read, “Right of Suffrage to Every American Citizen.” Hopefully a few of them lived another 55 years and saw the dream come true.

Thousands of women were involved by 1873, and they gathered in Augusta to form the Maine Women’s Suffrage Association.  The Maine Legislature also held its first vote on the matter, but the petition was voted down.  The MWSA still faced decades of campaigning, and often worked with other women’s groups that fought for temperance and labor rights.

As is often the case, the women who marched and picketed and held meetings tended to be of the idle rich variety, as the poorer women were too busy working in factories, sweatshops and on the farm.  However, one of the arguments for the women’s vote was the idea of equal pay for working women.  Low wages for women drove down wages for men as well, hurting the family finances all around.  If women achieved the vote, and then voted themselves equal pay, it would drive up the wages for men, too.  Even though fewer women would be hired at the higher rate, husbands would be bringing home more money and women would not need to work outside the home.

Although the idea of women voting probably seemed laughable to men in the 19th century, public support grew as the 20th century dawned.  Men started their own opposing groups:  The Maine Association Opposed to the Suffrage of Women in 1913, and the Maine Equal Suffrage League in 1914.  After suffrage efforts stalled out at the state level, Mainers and other groups around the nation began to fight for a national voting amendment.

All of their effort finally wore down the politicians in Washington, D.C., who voted for the 19th Amendment in 1919.  In August 1920, Maine was among the states that voted to ratify.  Women had finally earned a political voice.  Gail Laughlin, who had been vice president of the Maine branch of the National Women’s Party, became the first woman elected to the Maine State Senate.

Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman from Maine to serve at a national level. She served as both a  congresswoman (1940-49) and a senator (1949-73) as a Republican. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins also represented Maine for many years in Congress.

And today we have Janet Mills, the first female governor in the state, residing in the Blaine House.  As the old cigarette ad used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

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