Perhaps most well-known is Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman elected to both houses of Congress, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1940 to 1948, and then in the U.S. Senate from 1948 to 1972. Her thirty-two years of service are a remarkable example of honesty, integrity, and courage. In her famous speech, the “Declaration of Conscience,” she stood in front of the Senate and denounced the accusations made by Senator Joe McCarthy, criticized national leadership, and demanded a reexamination of the tactics used by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She called for a renewal of “the right to independent thought.”
Another woman with a strong Maine connection who helped pave the way for women on a national scale was Frances Perkins. Her parents were both from Newcastle, Maine, and she is buried there. Frances Perkins was the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, serving as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Many of the most prominent New Deal programs were her idea, including the Social Security Act which established unemployment benefits and pensions for uncovered elderly citizens. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, defining the standard forty-hour work week. Her family home in Newcastle is now the Francis Perkins Center, which focuses on teaching about her work on these issues.
When asked if being a woman in Washington D.C. would be an impediment, Frances famously quipped “only when climbing trees.”
Our current Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley is the first woman to hold that post. Janet Mills is the first, and second, woman to be Maine’s attorney general. In the Maine Legislature, Beverly Daggett was the first woman to serve as Maine Senate President and the first woman Speaker of the Maine House was Libby Mitchell. Also serving as Maine Senate President years later, Libby became the first woman in the country to have held both leadership positions.
With Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s election in 2008, Maine became the first state to have women as a majority of its congressional delegation. The other members included U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Legislative leadership will be inviting Sen. Snowe to talk about her impressive career in front of the entire Legislature in a joint convention later this year.
Maine has a proud and strong history of women trailblazers in politics, but we are still not done. Maine has still never had a woman governor, currently has no women serving in legislative leadership, and only 28.5% of current legislators are women.
I feel lucky to be able to look up to the women who came before me, and hope I can help inspire future leaders. Our state can claim many “firsts” in women’s history. It is fascinating to look back through the years to see how far we have come – and to look ahead to see how far we still have to go before there are no more “firsts” left to achieve.
About the Author
Emily Cain is the State Senator for District 30, representing twenty-one communities in Penobscot County. You can reach Emily by email at email@example.com, or by phone at 207-866-3753.
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