MACHIAS, Maine — There is no disputing the important role that women play in directing the future of Washington County — from holding top county positions to arranging public suppers when a neighbor is in need. During a tour of Washington County last summer, the director of GrowSmart Maine, Nancy Smith, expressed her admiration that women were so prominently fostering the county’s direction.
Without discounting the number of important and powerful men in Washington County, Smith noted that the county manager is a woman; the town managers in Calais and Baileyville are women; the presidents of the University of Maine at Machias and Washington County Community College are women; women traditionally direct the chambers of commerce; and food pantries, church relief groups, shelters for the abused and other organizations are mostly managed by women.
But if you ask the women who are in these leadership roles, they are quick to credit not themselves, but the culture and character of the county itself.
“Not only are there many women working at different occupations and posts here in Washington County, but they are fostering a collaborative and inclusive atmosphere within the wider community,” said Meg McGarvey, a partner in The Commons, a commercial venture in Eastport, and an entrepreneur.
Gini King, former minister of the Centre Street Congregational Church in Machias, said she feels Washington County is unique because of its small population — about 35,000 or roughly the same number of inhabitants as the city of Bangor.
“People get to know other people face-to-face very quickly,” King said. “Women are particularly good at networking and they trust that system.”
Linda Godfrey, president of the Atlantic Leadership Center in Eastport, agreed. “Women have traditionally gained confidence in knowing that what is small can become something great, that applying ongoing positive reinforcement can yield successful results, and that living a quality life in a safe and nurturing environment is worth more than achieving material success that can fade quickly.”
“This place brings out the best in women, and women are bringing out the best of this place,” Godfrey said. “For close to a decade, I have heard comments from both inside and outside Washington County that there seems to be an extraordinary presence of women leading the growth and development activities in our county.”
Theories abound, but most women interviewed came back to the long standing tradition that many men in Washington County were fishermen, foresters or hunters who went to the sea or woods for extended periods of time. They felt that this resulted in the women who stayed at home taking on leadership roles in their families, as well as within the community.
“From a long-term historical perspective, before people began making a living off the land, many societies were matriarchal,” Cindy Huggins, president of the University of Maine at Machias said. “It was women who led in the communities and that was not at all unusual in Maine. It is just another piece of the unique nature of life in Washington County.”
“This legacy of generations of strong women created a foundation for modern women who learned that being a strong, independent and engaged woman was not only possible, but an expectation in this part of the world,” Godfrey said. “This role model of a woman who is capable, creative, intelligent and a pillar of strength is well set here.”
Huggins said that as the first woman president at UMM, she has never found being female a roadblock in Washington County. “Of course it necessitated a change in the mindset on campus, which is never easy, but change also brings opportunity.”
Some of the women also suggest that the rural nature of the county tends to make residents more independent and giving at the same time.
“We don’t have an Interstate,” Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said. “People don’t come and go as easily and therefore, when they come here, they expect to stay here. People choose to live here and therefore a certain self-sufficiency is fostered.”
Because of this sort of isolation, Washington County can be a harsh place to make a living.
“I think in such isolated places, such as this, people — both men and women — need to be innovative and flexible,” Elizabeth Sprague, former small business adviser at the Down East Business Alliance at Machias, said.
“Women are able to see quickly what many diverse people can bring to a project. They are very egalitarian,” she said. She also noted that in many communities, women are the pillars of social interaction and growth, fostering community events, public suppers and other activities that give a town its soul.
“Often, there is no desire expressed for a return,” she said. “They do it because it doesn’t occur to them not to.” She said it is often those women who have very little themselves that are the first to step in line to help others in need.
“It’s not just the women,” said McGarvey, the Eastport attorney, “but I feel that it’s the women who often shape and guide the dialogue and direction of issues. And that takes men who are open to listening.”
Washington County has a solid roster of men in leadership roles. “There are a number of good men around the county who have come from families with strong grandmothers, mothers, sisters and aunts,” added Godfrey of the Atlantic Leadership Center. “They have grown up influenced by capable women teachers, neighbors and family friends. They are married to or have life partners who are bright and successful women. These men are respectful, know the value of balance in work and other life settings and appreciate it. [They know it] is in their best interest — as well as the public’s interest — to be respectful and inclusive of women being part of every level of community service, education, business and political life.”
But Godfrey said the characteristics so prominently found in Washington County women — their trust of the unknown and risk-taking, their ability to act in an inclusive way, their free sharing of feelings and opinions that inspires others to engage, as well as their flexibility in the face of change — are attributes that “show up brightly and boldly in a small place such as Washington County, and contribute significantly to the growth and progress we are seeing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error. Meg McGarvey is not an attorney, but a partner in The Commons, a commercial venture in Eastport.