Women account for roughly half of the population in Maine and the U.S. as a whole, yet their representation in Congress and in the state Legislature continues to be far less than half. The fact that women are so underrepresented in their government isn’t just a matter of equality but also of improving how government works.
Research shows that when women are elected to public office, they are more likely to advocate for so-called women’s issues, such as expanded health care for children, family leave and care policies and increased funding for cancer research. But “women’s issues” is a misnomer. These aren’t issues that solely affect women; they affect all Americans and our economy.
“It matters tremendously that women be present” in state and federal decision-making, says Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center and a former state legislator.
That’s why it is concerning that women hold less than 20 percent of the 535 seats in Congress and less than a third in the Maine Legislature. In a recent analysis, the news website Vox notes that in 1997 the U.S. ranked 57th in the world for women’s representation in government. It has since fallen to 97th.
Why does this matter? “If we care about taking advantage of all the skills and diversity of perspectives in our population, then we should care about seeing both parties nominate and elect more women,” Christina Wolbrecht, a political scientist at Notre Dame University, told Vox.
In addition to sponsoring more legislation related to family issues, the involvement of women in their government has an impact on how it works. Women tend to be more collaborative. Think Sen. Susan Collins working to end government shutdowns and Senate breakdowns over judicial nominations. They also inspire other women and young girls to seek elective office and other jobs traditionally considered to be in the men’s realm.
Yet, there are fewer women in the Maine Legislature today than there were in 1991, when Maine ranked second in the country for the percentage of women serving in the State House.
During the 115th Legislature, which spanned 1991 and 1992, there were 61 female lawmakers, or nearly one-third of the total and the most ever in Maine. Since then, the number has dropped to a low of 43 in the 122th Legislature, which was elected in 2004. The crop of current legislators includes 54 women, or 29 percent. There are consistently more female Democrats in office than Republicans.
It is worth noting that two of the state’s three current constitutional officers and the state auditor are women — Attorney General Janet Mills, Treasurer Terry Hayes and Auditor Pola Buckley. For several years, three-quarters of Maine’s congressional delegation was female — Collins, former Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Chellie Pingree.
But the lack of growth in the number of women in the Maine Legislature is a cause for concern. It’s been blamed on many factors, including term limits, which drove out veteran female lawmakers in the mid-1990s, and more reluctance among women than men to seek elective office.
Serving in the Maine Legislature is a significant time commitment, which is especially challenging to women, who typically bear most of the responsibility for caring for children and aging parents, says Townsend, who served in the Maine House from 1992 to 2000. Legislative leaders can ease this burden. For example, Townsend notes, when Beth Edmonds, a Freeport Democrat, was Senate president she worked to set schedules that were more accommodating to lawmakers with multiple responsibilities and who traveled a great distance to get to Augusta.
What to do, then?
Evidence cited by Vox shows that women need more persuasion than men to run for office, yet they are asked less often than men to consider it. They are more likely to believe they are unqualified and that they don’t have much to contribute to the legislative debate.
Elective office at the local level is often the path to the State House, so recruiting more candidates for town councils and school boards is part of the solution. Bangor currently has only one female city councilor; Portland has only two.
We all benefit when government reflects our diversity, so we should all be concerned that women too often are on the political sidelines.