By Paul Mills
The re-introduction this spring of legislation that would send out to Maine voters an Equal Rights Amendment to the State Constitution has 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 have endured.
Though Maine’s legislature passed by over a two thirds majority such an amendment nearly a quarter century ago, voters themselves turned thumbs down on the measure by a 273-thousand to 185-thousand vote the next year.
Opposition to the Maine “ERA” at that time was spearheaded by the Maine Right to Life Committee and the Maine Christian Civic League.
What of course will not be at issue this year and was also beyond question in the 1980’s was women’s right to vote. It’s something that’s been so taken for granted it’s easy to lose sight of how Maine along with nearly the rest of the northeast region was slow to come to terms with such principles. It’s also another reminder of how unpredictable and independent Maine elections can be.
This was 1917, 100 years ago, just a few weeks before Rose Kennedy was about to give birth to a future president. It was then that Maine’s legislature set the stage for a state constitutional amendment to confer on women the right to vote. The 113 to 35 margin in the House, unanimous Senate approval along with the backing of Governor Milliken would seem to have been a harbinger of voter ratification in September. (As with the effort this year in Maine the goal was confined to the state constitution and was not merged with an attempt to change federal law.)
Preludes to this action went back to at least the 1890’s. That’s when Maine gave women the right to serve on local school boards. Bangor’s Mary Snow, who had in 1890 also been the city’s superintendent of schools, Susan Williams in Jay along with several in Portland were among those who later went on to serve on such panels by 1917.
The more immediate run-up to the 1917 vote was not nationally quite so auspicious, however. Only twelve 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 had all voted down such rights. Fully 65 percent of Bay State voters had turned out against the cause though the anti suffrage vote the same year in New York was a smaller 57 percent. Narrower but nevertheless negative outcomes also prevailed in Pennsylvania, which went against the women’s vote 54 to 46 percent and in New Jersey’s, where it was 52 to 48.
Giving impetus in Maine two years later in 1917, however, was the restoration of Republican control in the legislature. For at that time most Republican legislators were for women’s suffrage while most of their Maine Democratic counterparts were against it. The 1915 Democratic controlled Maine House, for example, had failed to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. There, a majority of its party’s members opposed it – 49 of the 59 votes against the bill being cast by Democrats – while at the same time nearly all GOP members voted for it.
The partisan line-up – perhaps curious by today’s standards – was in part attributable to the views each party then 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 vote.
To be sure, predicting how women would vote on the ever contentious liquor question was by no means the only fabric in the tapestry of the debate. Lewiston Democratic Representative George McCarty, for example, tried to incite fear of how women’s votes on other issues might play out in Maine. This he did by pointing to the example of three other states 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 which he attempted to place at the doorstep of women’s voting rights.
By February 1917, however, Maine 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 voting issue on the ballot for the first time.
Between the time of this legislative action and the September state-wide ratification vote, the country was plunged into World War, a distraction that did not in any event appear to impair vigorous debate. Indeed, attempts to vilify one’s opponents as German sympathizers crept into the dialogue at times, though a leader of the suffrage campaign in Maine blamed such War related causes as Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross for cutting into its fund raising efforts.
Among organizations arrayed in support included The Christian Civic League, which while backing the 1917 suffrage referendum wound up opposing the 1984 Equal Rights Amendment. Also lining up in support were the then powerful 60,000 member State Grange, the highly mobilized Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and President Wilson, whose letter urging Mainers to vote for it was widely circulated in the state. Organized Labor, always ambivalent if not sometimes arrayed in opposition to such measures, gave tepid backing to the cause.
Most newspapers supported the measure. Influential among them was the Republican leaning Lewiston Journal, which published a detailed supplement that was also made a part of 22 other papers throughout the state. Its stories featured rebuttals to claims that doubling the voting rolls would increase the cost of elections and also make women subject to poll taxes.
Another of the Journal’s write-ups had a distinctly contemporary ring, announcing that giving women voting rights: “Helps Bring Equal Pay for Equal Work,” “Divides the Guardianship of Children Between Mother and Father,” “Insures A Higher Type of Social Legislation.”
Besides newspapers, both sides also paraded their positions at movie theatre “moving picture screens.” (Radio and TV had not yet made their debut.)
Anti-Suffrage groups were led both by men and women. An ad in the Bangor Daily, for example, proclaimed: “The Overwhelming Majority of the 240,000 Women of Maine Do Not Wish to Vote. Do Not Force Them Into Politics.”
It’s of course not ascertainable how many women wanted to vote at that time. That’s because the election devoted to determining whether they would was still legally confined to men.
The outcome at a September 10, 1917 election that also featured voting on four other proposed constitutional amendments was 38,838 to 20,604 against the suffrage amendment. The 65 to 35 percent spread was identical to that which occurred when Massachusetts also rebuffed such a measure just two years before.
Though the decades’ long struggle to win voting rights for Maine women met a discouraging set back, neither Maine nor the nation would have much longer to wait 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, turned out to enact the same amendment Maine men had just tossed aside. The 100-thousand vote margin out of over a million cast was a convincing reversal not only of Maine’s outcome eight weeks earlier but also the Empire state’s own vote in 1915. It also signified a turning point in a march for women’s voting rights nationwide. Spurred on by a heightened consciousness of women’s role on the home front of World War I, the 19th amendment became law of the land in August of 1920.
Neither the Maine nor the New York votes of a century ago, however, would put to rest the larger issues contemplated by that Lewiston Journal analysis in 1917. Just what does giving women the right to vote really mean? For as a state and nation we all continue to grapple with comparability of working conditions, parental rights and other issues on the playing field of gender equity. Such matters might be addressed in the law now proposed by some members of our present state legislature asking that citizens 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.