Maine state flag

Last summer, Ryan Desanctis was researching the history of Maine’s official seal – the image that adorns the state’s flag, websites, signs and business cards – when he came across an original description of the design.

“The seal of the State shall be a shield, argent, charged with a pine tree with a moose at the foot of it, recumbent; supporters: on dexter side (right), a husbandman, resting on a scythe; on sinister side (left), a seaman, resting on an anchor.”

The seal was established in 1820, not long after Maine broke away from Massachusetts. Before slavery was outlawed. Generations before women got the right to vote. It reflected the time.

But times change.

“I didn’t even know what a husbandman was,” said Desanctis, a 22-year-old college student from Gorham.

After talking with his local representative, House Majority Leader Maureen Terry, Desanctis proposed changing the description of the seal to make it both more modern and gender neutral. Husbandman would become farmer; seaman would become sailor.


He also proposed altering the image of the seal displayed on the flag so that one of the two figures – he doesn’t care which – is female.

“I think the most important aspect to this is representation,” he explained. “The seal was created to represent Maine’s workforce, as I understand, but it’s not a workforce that’s 100 percent male.”

Terry, a Gorham Democrat, agreed to sponsor the bill, which is scheduled for a public hearing Thursday before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee. L.D. 1616 would do two things: Change the language in statute describing the seal so that the terms are gender neutral and direct the secretary of state to commission a redesign of the flag so that one of the figures is female.

“I think updating our laws and statutes with language that better represents our citizens is the right step,” Terry said.

Maine seal

Which figure on the Maine state seal should be female?

State historian Earle Shettleworth said even small, well-intended changes to things that represent Maine’s history can make them more relevant, but also can be fraught and stir opposition.

“Certainly, updating language that is considered arcane is probably less complex than changing the imagery itself,” he said. “But I think one of the issues here is finding a way to make these emblems and symbols more meaningful.”


There is a practical matter, too. If the official seal is changed to include a woman, hundreds of signs, business cards, websites and more would need to be updated. That’s part of the reason Desanctis suggested only changing the image that appears on flags. The bill would not change the seal for other uses.

Terry’s bill competes with two other proposals to alter the state’s flag that already have gone through committee. One, sponsored by Rep. Sean Paulhus, D-Bath, would remove the state seal altogether and restore the original Maine flag – the 1901 version that features a green pine tree and blue North Star set against an off-white background. Another, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, would authorize a referendum to let Maine voters to decide whether they want to keep the current flag or adopt the 1901 version.

Neither of those bills received unanimous support in committee and are likely to generate debate once they reach the full House and Senate. Similar bills to restore Maine’s 1901 flag were rejected by lawmakers in each of the last two Legislatures.

Terry said that even if her bill doesn’t pass, the time to change Maine’s flag could be now.

“One thing a state flag is supposed to do is be recognizable. There are something like 35 flags with the same type of blue background,” she said. “Ours isn’t recognizable.”

The flags of West Virginia, Wisconsin and Delaware, which all use the state seal, look a lot like Maine’s – two white men standing on either side of crest that says something about the state.

Other state seals are more gender neutral. Idaho’s seal, the only one designed by a woman, resembles Maine’s but features a figure of a woman on the left and man on the right. It was adopted in 1891, as the Women’s Suffrage movement was gathering momentum.

Desanctis said he would support restoring the original Maine flag in lieu of his proposal, since its symbolism is more general than specific. And if changing the seal to make either the farmer or sailor a woman is too cumbersome, he said, updating the language shouldn’t be.

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