BRUNSWICK, Maine — In 1974, Patricia Ryan served as statewide coordinator for the Maine Coalition for the Equal Rights Amendment, one of 25 organizations the pushed the state of Maine to become the 17th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Over the next four decades, Ryan was at the forefront of Maine’s fight for human rights, including 32 years as executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.
As the battle for women’s rights continued, Ryan oversaw the commission as it worked to protect Mainers from discrimination on such grounds as age, race, religion and sexual orientation.
By the time she retired from the commission in 2011, Maine law had been amended to protect pregnant women from sex discrimination, families with children from housing discrimination, girls from discrimination in education, and to make it a crime to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation.
In October, the ACLU of Maine honored Ryan with its Roger Baldwin Award, named for the organization’s founder and given annually to a group or activist that has made “a distinguished contribution to the protection and promotion of civil liberties in Maine.”
“For over 40 years, Pat Ryan has been at the forefront of the movement for gender equality in Maine, working to ensure that all Maine women and girls are able to lead lives of dignity, free from violence and discrimination,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “We salute Pat for helping build a Maine where women and girls have equal opportunity under the law.”
On Friday, Ryan spoke of the progress Maine made during those years, the protections enacted, and her concern that human rights defenders “will have to be on the defense” following the recent elections.
“In the beginning, when we did the ERA, the very notion that women should have equal opportunities in all areas was foreign,” Ryan said at her home in Brunswick. At the time, labor laws required employees to offer women workers extra breaks to sit down, and that affected the type of work women could do and were hired to do.
As Ryan and others worked to pass the ERA, “everything we did was under a spotlight,” she said. But as people finally began to acknowledge women could be police officers and firefighters and lawyers and own their own companies, then, even though there was still a lot of work to be done, the spotlight was gone. And that was good, because other protected classes needed the spotlight.”
Into the 1980s, disability rights cases became more common at the commission. They have heard cases involving “whistleblowers” who were retaliated against for reporting illegal or unsafe action in the workplace; employees who were fired due to their religion; and in one case, girls basketball teams across the state that were being asked to play tournament games at the University of Maine so boys teams could have the Bangor Auditorium.
The number of cases seemed to peak in the 1990s and 2000s, due in part to Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Similarly, when advocacy groups for those with disabilities began filing complaints about inaccessible buildings and lack of reasonable accommodations, those numbers increased.
More recently, the commission has heard complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation, whether a tenant claims that a landlord refused to rent to them because they’re gay, or a transgendered student claims that they were forced to use a particular school bathroom.
Unlike California and Texas, Ryan said Maine has never seen a large number of complaints of discrimination on the basis of race or national origin — perhaps because the percentage of the population is so low, but also, she said, because “Portland and Lewiston have been very welcoming, in many respects, to immigrants.”
“I always viewed the human rights act as a vehicle that was made to change with the times,” she said. “As discrimination practices were identified, they should be added to the Human Rights Act so they could be eliminated.”
Some cases stand out from her 32-year tenure. In the 1980s, a Maine town — Ryan declined to name it — advertised for a police officer, specifying that candidates should “Measure up like a man.”
“They were adamant that the job required the physical characteristics of a man, and a woman would not be able to perform the duties.”
The commission found reasonable grounds to believe a potential female candidate had been discriminated against, the case went to court and — years later — the woman was hired for the job.
In another case, South Portland city officials in 1984 purchased city buses that were not accessible, despite the cost of an accessible bus only being $7,000 more, according to Ryan. The city told the commission, and ultimately the court, that they could use smaller, regional transportation buses for those with disabilities. Ryan said the city lost.
Perhaps her most satisfying case, though, involved a 1986 decision by the Maine Principals Association to move the girls’ basketball playoffs to the University of Maine in order to make room for all of the boys teams to play at Bangor Auditorium.
“They were going to have the girls play [at the university] so as to not disrupt the boys,” Ryan said. But the Skowhegan High School team and coach filed a complaint with the commission.
Time was short, with the tournament beginning in two weeks, Ryan said, “and it didn’t look like we were going to be able to get a decision fast enough.”
But then-Attorney General James Tierney joined the lawsuit, and Ryan said she saw “the fastest-moving case” — and the most rewarding.
Equal rights for women is a cause particularly important to Ryan, who in 1978 helped found the Maine Women’s Lobby to advance the interests of women and girls.
In some aspects, she said, younger women growing up without awareness of that early battle is gratifying, because “equal rights are so integrated into their thinking.”
But she cautioned that sexual harassment and discrimination does still occur.
“It’s incumbent on us to continue to talk about these things and raise issues,” she said. “We have to engage on all kinds of issues. Not everybody is a social activist, but everybody can do something in their own realm to make sure we continue.”
Ryan doesn’t foresee another major protected class on the horizon, although she anticipates more amendments to protect, for example, pregnant women and women who breastfeed at work.
But she said the recent election will require human rights advocates “to be more on the defense, and make sure there are no erosions in what we’ve already achieved.”
Under different circumstances, she said, “there would have been more options to move forward. And some things will advance, and the dialogue will continue. But for those at the state house, it’s going to be harder.