AUGUSTA – The number of women serving in the Legislature has dropped in recent years, but that could change as a result of this year’s elections as women try to prove their place is in both the House and Senate.
Female candidacies for seats in the House of Representatives are up sharply, according to State House counts, rising from 78 two years ago to 95 this year.
The roster of women seeking election to the Senate numbers 26 – tied for second-highest of the female fields in the last eight cycles, legislative research suggests.
This year’s increase is propelled in large part by a Democratic push in the House.
“A concerted effort,” says Democratic Rep. Leila Percy of Phippsburg, “trying to find women to run.”
Prospecting brought in a diverse batch, says Percy, from minister to single mom.
“What’s so cool is the variety of people who are running,” she says.
In the 114th Legislature as elected in November 1988, women made up 31.2 percent of the total House and Senate membership with 48 (31.8 percent) in the 151-member seat House and 10 (28.6 percent) in the 35-seat Senate.
That put Maine third in the nation in the percentage of women serving, according to a count by the staff of the Maine House.
Two years later, Maine rose to second in the nation behind Arizona, as 49 women won election to the House and 12 women entered the Senate. The total of 61 women picked by voters for the 115th Legislature amounted to roughly one-third of the membership at 32.8 percent, according to the House staff count.
The number of women fell back slightly in the 116th: 48 women in the House, 11 women in the Senate, 31.7 percent overall.
But since then, the House has become considerably more male, with female numbers falling to 39 elected in 1994, 35 in 1996 and 1998, back up to 41 in 2000 but then back down to 37 in 2002.
Women took 16 Senate seats in 1998 and 15 in 2000, but overall in the Legislature female numbers remained no higher than 30.1 percent, and fell to 26.9 percent in 2002.
Two years ago, only 32 women won House seats while the number of women winning election to the Senate reached just 11. That made the female bloc less than one-quarter of the legislative total – 23.1 percent.
This year, Democrats are running 13 women for Senate seats and 61 for seats in the House. Republicans have 10 women seeking election to the Senate and 33 to the House.
There also is a handful of women running without major party affiliation.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston, R-Montville, says the success of women in elective office spurs interest among others.
“It appears to be contagious,” Weston says.
In Maine, Weston notes, both U.S. senators – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – are women who have done well.
And while both Snowe and Collins are fellow Republicans, Weston also notes that the state Senate has a Democratic woman serving as president – Beth Edmonds of Freeport – and another Democratic member, Elizabeth Mitchell of Vassalboro, who was the first woman elected to the post of speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.