Gray Town Councilor Anne Gass, the great-granddaughter of a suffragist, says many people think Maine has ratified the ERA, but it hasn’t. Portland Press Herald file photo

GRAY — The Gray Town Council voted unanimously this month to pass a resolution in support of the Maine Equal Rights Amendment. For Councilor Anne Gass, who wrote the resolution, the council’s “expression of sentiment” is a continuation of her great-grandmother’s fight for women’s rights over 100 years ago.

Growing up, Gass always knew that her great-grandmother, Florence Brooks Whitehouse, was a suffragist, but “my family never acted like it was a cool thing.” Gass’ mother, who was born in 1930 in Portland, knew her grandmother but told Gass that not even Whitehouse spoke much about her work.

And Gass’ secondary school education hadn’t exactly give her a better understanding of the women’s suffrage movement nationally or in Maine.

“It rated maybe a few paragraphs in our history book,” she said.

The “saving grace,” as she put it, for learning about her great-grandmother’s history was that Whitehouse kept detailed records, which Gass’ aunt donated to the Maine Historical Society. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Gass was in her 40s that she managed to find time to dig into those records.

That’s when she realized the amount of work ahead of her.

“I realized how much I had to educate myself. In her papers, there were telegrams from the National Women’s Party telling her that women had been arrested and jailed for picketing the White House, or things like that, and I was thinking (that) I had no idea who these organizations were, who these individuals were, what was happening, why they were getting jailed,” she said.

“I just didn’t know any of the history.”

Over the course of the next decade and a half, Gass conducted extensive research into the history of the women’s suffrage movement and her great-grandmother’s role in it. But between raising her children and running a business, she said, she didn’t really feel comfortable publishing her book, “Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse & Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage,” until 2014.

Gass realized after the book was published how few people knew the history of the fight for women’s rights in Maine. One of the things that concerns her is that many of the people she’s spoken to assume that the Equal Rights Amendment was ratified. Maine has not passed an ERA at the state level and and Congress has to approve an ERA at the federal level.

“I think it’s a real crime how little we as a society, even to this day, value women’s history and incorporate (it) into school curricula,” she said.

The resolution she wrote is a way for local governments, like the Gray Town Council, to show their support for the Maine ERA,  LD 433. After passing the resolution, the council sent it to their legislative representatives.

Gass said that the council heard back immediately from Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth,  and Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, who expressed their support.

When reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Breen said that she thinks Gray’s resolution is “tremendous.”

“What’s striking to me about it (is that it) is very, very unusual for towns to pass resolutions about a piece of state legislation – like at all,” she said.”

“I think it was really forward thinking and I thought it sent a great message to the people of Gray and the people of Maine … I wish every town in Maine would do the same,” Breen said.

In an email to Lakes Region Weekly on Wednesday morning, Moriarty wrote that, “I have supported the federal Equal Rights Amendment since the early 1970s… It is hard to believe that this basic principle is still contested.”

“I am proud of the Gray Town Council for having unanimously passed a resolution calling upon the Legislature to enact the bill,” he said.

Gass said that neither she nor the council received a response from Rep. Sue Austin, R-Gray.

Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, introduced the bill to the State Senate at last year. It passed there with the requisite 2/3 majority and has been sitting in the House ever since, according to Sen. Breen. If the House does not pass the resolution in the special session, then the bill will die on adjournment and the legislature will have to start the process again in the next session. The second session of the 129th Legislature adjourned early, on March 17, because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Legislature has no set date for the commencement of the special session.

But Gass is committed to following through on her fight to ratify the ERA.

“At a time when the courts are becoming more conservative, there’s a deadlock in Congress and a president who thinks it’s OK to grab women’s (expletive), I think it’s possible for (women’s) rights to be slowly rolled back,” she said.

“That’s what we need to remain vigilant about.”

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