Her goal, elusive as it has proven to be, is simple.

“Susan B. Anthony died before the vote was given to women,” said Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, referring to the matriarch of the women’s suffrage movement. “And I do not want to be the Susan B. Anthony of Maine, thank you very much.”

She’s talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, for which Reckitt has spent 50 of her 77 years advocating at both the federal and state levels. On Tuesday, at a noon hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, she’ll take up the cause anew: L.D. 344, if passed by two-thirds of the Legislature and then approved by voters in November, would once and for all amend Maine’s Constitution to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sex.

Say what? You thought all that was already resolved?

Think again.

The federal ERA, a full half century after it was first proposed, remains in a state of limbo. Virginia became the requisite 38th state to ratify the amendment in 2020 – Maine did so in 1974 – but its actual insertion into the U.S. Constitution remains impeded by a long-passed 1982 deadline for state ratification and the legally murky decision by five states to rescind their support in the late 1970s.

A parallel effort by Reckitt to at least add an ERA to Maine’s Constitution, meanwhile, passed the state Senate two years ago but fell just a few votes short in the House. Now it’s back – and this time, we can only hope, lawmakers will do the right thing and pass it posthaste.

For Reckitt, it has been a long, often discouraging journey. It started in 1972. While working as swimming director at the Portland YWCA, she attended a speech by Wilma Scott Heide, then the third president of the nascent National Organization for Women. So inspired by Heide’s address were Reckitt and nine other local women that they formed a NOW chapter for southern Maine and began advocating for Maine to ratify the ERA.

From there, Reckitt went to Washington, D.C., in 1984 to serve as executive vice president of NOW, an elected position she held for three years. She then became deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which she’d co-founded in 1980.

Returning to Maine in 1990, she spent the next 25 years as the head of Family Crisis Services, advocating loudly and effectively for survivors of domestic abuse.

In short, Reckitt long has fought the good fight for those in search of equal treatment under the law. And over the years she’s played pivotal roles in advancing that cause – the most notable achievement being the Maine Human Rights Act, which some might argue already offers the protections called for in the proposed state ERA.

It does – and then some. The statute prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, education, extension of credit and public accommodation, not just based on sex, but also “race, color … sexual orientation or gender identity, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry or national origin.”

The problem is that statutes can be changed, as Reckitt wryly put it, “at the drop of a LePage.”  The state constitution, on the other hand, lends more weight and endurance to the notion that when it’s all said and done, we should all be treated equally under the law.

At the same time, Reckitt observed, the current statute doesn’t address other forms of discrimination against women that have gone on unabated for decades. As Equal Rights Maine notes, women still face inequity when it comes to pay, treatment in the workplace, access to health care and insurance, and sexual violence.

In a memo last week to supporters, Reckitt said she might broaden her bill “to expand the reach of the (state ERA) beyond sex discrimination” and incorporate the other protected classes listed in the Maine Human Rights Act. Philosophically speaking, that’s not a bad idea – the more Mainers who are constitutionally protected from bigotry and social inequity, the better.

But politically Reckitt knows she still has a tough row to hoe – especially with a strong majority of House Republicans, who only last week couldn’t even bring themselves to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and honor the police officers who defended Congress that day.

When it comes to a state ERA, Reckitt said, Republicans in the House “have been dug in for some time – before they were dug in on everything else. It’s really frustrating.”

Reckitt said Gov. Janet Mills plans to testify Tuesday in favor of the bill, as she has in the past. Support is also expected from Attorney General Aaron Frey, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, Commissioner of Labor Laura Fortman and Portland attorney Mary Bonauto, who six years ago successfully argued for same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And if that august group can’t pry loose a few much-needed votes? Perhaps Miss Maine 2021 can.

He name is Mariah Larocque. She lives in Bangor and made headlines last month when she had to withdraw from the Miss America Pageant in Connecticut after testing positive for COVID-19, despite being fully vaccinated. Even after she headed home in bitter disappointment, her peers saw fit to name her Miss Congeniality.

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse – her social platform for the pageant – Larocque said she’s ready and eager to join “such an important conversation as equity for everyone.”

“I’m always happy to link arms with incredible change makers – and Lois is that woman,” she said. “I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to have a voice. And that’s what this is – giving people an opportunity to use their voice, have their voice be heard and make an impact so that other people have that same opportunity.”

Larocque is 26 – about the same age Reckitt was when she first took up the equal rights baton. Together, come Tuesday, these two women will stand as generational bookends to a cause that will not die.

As Susan B. Anthony herself once said, “Oh, if I could but live another century and see the fruition of all the work for women! There is so much yet to be done.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: