Current assistant House minority leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and assistant House majority leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics
Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics Credit:

The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report this week about the demographics of state legislatures across the country, and found that after decades of gains, the percentages of women in those governing chambers hit a wall right around 2009.

In Maine, women have long been better represented in the Legislature than other states, on average. But while Maine was once among the topmost leaders of the country in terms of women’s share of legislative seats — it was among the top three states in percentage every year from 1987 through 1992 — it has plateaued in recent years and dropped back into the pack.

Women now have better representation in the legislatures of 11 other states, including in Vermont and Colorado, where they hold 41 percent of the legislative seats.

Down from a 1991 high of nearly 33 percent, today 29 percent of Maine’s House and Senate seats are held by women. That may not seem like a precipitous dropoff, but it includes a sharper dip to around 23 percent in 2005-06, and represents stagnation after a consistent annual climb from at least 1975 through 1991.

At the municipal level — where elections can sometimes be springboards to legislative campaigns — women are even more poorly represented in Maine. The University of Massachusetts Boston found that the percentage of women on municipal governing boards — town councils and boards of selectmen — has declined every year since 2009 and now stands at 22.4 percent.

Why aren’t women better represented?

It’s not that women aren’t winning the political races they’re entering. It’s that they’re not entering.

Reports Pew:

“In 2015, female candidates for state legislative seats are just as likely to win as their male competitors. The challenge is getting them to run.”

In Maine, exactly half of the 92 women who ran for House seats in 2014 were elected, while the percentage was slightly lower among female Senate candidates (eight out of 19 were elected).

According to Pew, people who study gender and politics argue that the same lack of ego that can make women effective in government — Maine’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and other Senate women were credited with breaking the government shutdown stalemate of 2013, for instance — can also make them reluctant to run.

“Women just don’t wake up one day and look at themselves in the mirror the way men, quite frankly, do and say, ‘I should run for office,’ ” Liz Berry, state president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, told Pew.

Combined with the fact that women still statistically carry heavier loads than men in terms of domestic responsibilities, that makes devoting energy to campaigns an even tougher sell.

“When women first think about running up until the time that they actually run is about three years,” Christine Rolfes, a state senator in Washington, told Pew. “For men, it’s about three weeks.”

Why does this matter?

Women make up about 51 percent of the populations of both Maine and the larger United States, meaning they’re significantly underrepresented among the people making laws governing the society they live in.

That same thing can be said of a number of other demographic groups nationwide, as well. Congress is only about 8 percent Latino, for instance, while the larger U.S. population is about 17 percent Latino.

But the representation gap remains widest when it comes to women.

“Women — who are the most affected by economic issues like low wages, outdated workplace policies that deny women paid leave, a lack of affordable child care and attacks on access to health care and reproductive rights — know the importance of these priorities,” Amy Halsted, associate director of the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, wrote in a commentary for the Portland Press Herald. “These are the problems that people in Maine want addressed by state lawmakers, who have the power to remedy them by passing legislation that would level the playing field and create fair opportunities for all women and families to prosper.”

In that column, Halsted was decrying the defeat of progressive policies by the heavily male state Legislature, including bills that would have increased the minimum wage and expanded funding for child care.

But while female state legislators nationwide are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans (roughly 60 percent versus 40 percent), women are considered vital for both political parties.

The Maine GOP held a targeted SHE Leads conference this fall, for instance, and the state’s Republicans have had tremendous success with women candidates for congressional seats — Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to ever hold a seat in both chambers of Congress, while Olympia Snowe and Collins went on to be among the most popular U.S. senators from any state.

Meanwhile, the Democratic group Emerge Maine has been recruiting women to run for office on the left for years, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has had an ironclad grip on the state’s 1st congressional district since 2009.

It wasn’t long ago that three out of four members of the state’s congressional delegation were women, a sign that when women are engaged, they can rise to the highest offices.

Current assistant House minority leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and assistant House majority leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.
[Troy R. Bennett | BDN] Current assistant House minority leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and assistant House majority leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.