AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans in the Legislature have essentially shut the door on the possibility of a referendum to enshrine gender equality in the Maine Constitution.

The bill calling for the measure has received majority votes in both chambers of the Legislature but failed to garner two-thirds support, which is necessary to send a constitutional amendment to a statewide vote. A bid to kill the bill failed 16-19 in the Senate on Tuesday with Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta and Dana Dow of Waldoboro joining with Democrats in favor of the bill, which passed on a 78-65 party-line vote in the House on Thursday.

Supporters argue that gender inequality shows itself on a range of issues, from unequal pay for men and women to divorce and domestic violence laws. Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, said Maine women remain at a disadvantage in a number of ways.

“I have seen how these cultural biases work,” Vitelli said during Senate debate Tuesday. “Words matter.”

If it were enough, said Vitelli, the nation would not have needed the Equal Pay Act, the Equal Rights Act or Title 9 protections that guarantee equal access to athletics for both genders.

“It is time to guarantee that our courts use the highest standard, a constitutional standard, when faced with cases that have to do with sex discrimination,” said Vitelli.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, disagreed.

“I believe that women are already protected under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that Maine law adequately upholds equal treatment for men and women,” said Keim. “I don’t believe that my sex automatically places me at a disadvantage. … If the constitution is not already respected, this proposed change will do little to alter this.”

Equal gender rights is a fight that has simmered for more than a century in the United States. Ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 ensured that women could vote, but it is still a reality that in many sectors, women are paid less than men for the same work and there are vast inequalities in the number of female business leaders and government officials.

An effort to amend the U.S. Constitution failed during the women’s rights resurgence of the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1984, the fight came to Maine. The Legislature sent a question to referendum that would have overridden state and local discrimination based on sex in Article 1 of the Maine Constitution. Among some 530,000 votes cast, 63 percent rejected the proposal.

Twenty-three other states have an equal rights amendment in their state constitutions.

The bill faces additional votes in both chambers.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.