ELLSWORTH — In last fall’s midterm elections, voters elected women in record numbers at the state and national level.
Women now make up 38 percent of the Maine Legislature (one of the highest percentages in the nation) and half of the state’s congressional delegation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
More than half of Governor Janet Mills’ cabinet is made up of women. As town meeting time rolls around, will elections at the local level bring the same pink wave?
At the end of March, roughly 20 percent of members of boards of selectmen in Hancock County were women, according to data collected by The Ellsworth American, slightly less than the percentage in the U.S. Congress (24 percent).
Penobscot voters recently elected a woman to the Board of Selectmen for the first time, and women are on the ballot all over the county.
But women remain under-represented at every level of government.
This is not necessarily because voters don’t want to elect a woman.
“Extensive research shows that when women run for office, they perform just as well as men,” write authors of a 2008 Brookings Institution Report. “Yet women remain severely under-represented in our political institutions.”
The reason? Women are simply not running for office in the first place, the authors write.
Women who’ve been elected in Hancock County backed up the Brookings research, saying voters didn’t seem to pay attention to their gender.
“The first time a lot of people were just excited that a young person was running,” said Sarah Nichols, chairman of the Bangor City Council. “I was 25 the first time.”
Many agreed that one of the primary reasons women don’t run has to do with confidence.
“Women sometimes don’t step forward to do some of these things,” said Jo Cooper, who has served on the Lamoine Board of Selectmen for more than 20 years.
“We tend to think we don’t have the skills that are necessary. There’s a hesitancy to get involved, that you have to have some major qualification,” Cooper said.
Nichols agreed. She remembered the story of a woman who was interested in running for office but “wasn’t feeling as confident because she didn’t have a college degree,” Nichols said.
“She had everything you would’ve wanted in an elected official. I don’t think that should be a litmus test as to whether or not you’re qualified.”
Women also face constraints on their time that aren’t as relevant for men. They still spend more time on housework (almost an hour more than men each day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and more time on child care.
“Women have a lot of responsibilities outside of work,” Nichols said.
“It takes having enough support to be able to take the time for it,” said Cooper, who said that when she was first in office the group of women who helped her get elected — her “committee,” as Cooper called it — would make dinner every selectmen’s night. “They were really trying to help me.”
Her husband also was very supportive, said Cooper, and was able to help lessen the burden in caring for the couple’s four young children.
State Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) said affordable child care was the primary gender-related issue she wrestled with when considering a run for office.
“Which is an obstacle for any parent, not just women,” McDonald added.
Julie Eaton chairs the legislative committee of the Maine Lobstering Union and said she plans to run for the House of Representatives in 2020. She credits Emerge Maine, a program that trains Democratic women to run for office, with helping give her the confidence to get involved in politics. (There is an equivalent program for Republican women called She Leads.)
“I didn’t know how to run. How do you run a campaign? How do you do this?” said Eaton. “The sisterhood created by Emerge is going to be invaluable.”
Many of the issues faced by women at the local level are the same nationally, but funding is one area where local women may have it easier.
While national candidates face the daunting task of raising thousands or millions to run a campaign, candidates at the local level generally need far less cash.
Nichols said it cost her roughly $3,000 to run a citywide campaign in Bangor, noting that for a citywide campaign that figure “is not a lot.”
For those running at the state level, she pointed out, “We do have a clean elections system and that is very effective and gives a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have the connections to fundraise a chance. It’s a really good way to bring parity to the system.”
Several women say they were prompted to run after a friend or colleague suggested it.
“What really got me involved was because someone asked,” McDonald said. “That, I think, is what gets people involved in politics. I think that’s what gets a lot of women involved in politics.”
Many women say their reasons for running are out of a desire for policy change or civic duty, much the same as their male counterparts.
“I think that’s the same for women and men,” said Brooklin Selectman Laura Sherman. “I think it builds your leadership skills. I think everybody should find a way to serve their community.”
When the selectman isn’t a man
Women may be running in record numbers, but the titles they take on — “chairman,” “selectman” — often don’t reflect their gender. So does language matter?
“I don’t really care. I think the title is selectman and that is what I used,” said Laura Sherman, who serves on the Board of Selectmen in Brooklin. Jo Cooper, a selectman in Lamoine, agrees, but says it may be time for a change. “Language does matter,” Cooper said. “I’m becoming more and more aware that these kinds of words do matter. In our culture, they’re ingrained in us. I wouldn’t mind if somebody were to start changing that.”
Former state Rep. Richard Malaby of Hancock introduced legislation last year that would have eliminated the term “selectman” statewide and replaced it with “selectperson.” “Was it the most important bill?” Malaby said. “No. But I do think it’s the right thing to do.” The bill passed the House and failed in the Senate, although there was little indication as to why, Malaby said.
“I think that titles are just that,” said Julie Eaton, who chairs the legislative committee for the Maine Lobstering Union. “For me it doesn’t matter. For some women it matters. It’s personal choice.”
“I’m always wanting more inclusivity on the names of things,” said Sarah Nichols, chairman of the Bangor City Council, who said she prefers to be called councilor. “Keeping terminology more neutral means the table is open to all.”