The re-introduction this spring of legislation to send out to Maine voters an Equal Rights Amendment to the Maine Constitution shed renewed light on the status of women in the Pine Tree State. It’s also a fitting occasion to take a look at the bumpy ride that previous efforts endured.
Though the Legislature passed by over a two-thirds majority such an amendment nearly a quarter century ago, voters turned thumbs down on the measure by 333,998 to 195,653.
What, of course, is not at issue this year — nor was in the 1980s — is women’s right to vote. It’s easy to lose sight of how Maine, along with nearly the rest of the Northeast, was slow to come to terms with such a principle. It’s also another reminder of how unpredictable and independent Maine elections can be.
It was 1917, when the Legislature set the stage for a constitutional amendment to confer on women the right to vote. With overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, along with the backing of Gov. Carl Milliken, it would seem to have been destined for voter ratification in September.
Nationally, though, the run-up to the 1917 vote was not quite so auspicious. Only 12 states — all of them west of the Mississippi — had by then conferred full suffrage rights on women for all elections. (A few other states had given them the right to vote in either local or national elections.) Just two years earlier, in 1915, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania voted down such rights.
But the restoration of Republican control of the Maine Legislature gave impetus for women’s suffrage. At that time, most Republican legislators were for women’s suffrage, while most of their Democratic counterparts were against it. The 1915 Democratic-controlled House, for example, opposed putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot.
The partisan line-up — perhaps curious by today’s standards — was in part attributable to the views each party had on Prohibition, one of the most prominent issues at that time. In anticipation of the boost it would give the liquor banning crusade, Republicans tended to be for giving women voting rights. The predominantly “wet” Democratic Party tended to be against conferring the franchise on women for the same reason, even though the party’s national leader, President Woodrow Wilson, favored giving women the right to vote.
Democratic Rep. George McCarty of Lewiston also tried to incite fear of how women’s votes on other issues might play out. He pointed to the example of three states — California, Nevada and Colorado — where women had already been enfranchised. California’s more open immigration practices, Nevada’s more liberal divorce laws, and Colorado’s labor unrest — the latter being part of a popular argument to link women’s suffrage to socialism — were among the perceived pitfalls that he attempted to place at the doorstep of women’s voting rights.
By February 1917, however, Maine’s solons disregarded such anti-suffrage arguments. Suffrage supporters for the first time mustered the two-thirds vote in the Legislature necessary to put the women’s right to vote on the ballot.
The outcome in the September election, which also featured four other proposed constitutional amendments, was 38,838 to 20,604 against the suffrage amendment. Though the decades-long struggle to win voting rights for Maine women met a discouraging setback, neither Maine nor the nation would wait much longer before the tide would quickly turn in its favor.
Less than two months later, male voters in the nation’s most populous state, New York, enacted the same amendment Maine men had tossed aside. It signified a turning point in the march for women’s voting rights nationwide. Spurred on by a heightened consciousness of women’s role on the home front during World War I, the 19 th Amendment became law of the land in August 1920.
Neither the Maine nor the New York votes, however, put to rest the larger issue of just what giving women the right to vote really meant? As a state and nation, we continue to grapple with comparability of working conditions, parental rights and other issues of gender equity. Such matters might be addressed with the proposal to let Maine voters have a renewed opportunity to vote on an equal rights provision for the Maine Constitution.
If such an amendment passes, however, the guidance history provides is that there will likely be a never-ending dilemma on how best to address these more expansive ramifications.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.