SKOWHEGAN — Ninety-two years after its founding by then-24-year-old Margaret Chase (Smith) and another local woman, the Skowhegan chapter of Maine Business and Professional Women has disbanded.

Past president and longtime club member Maxine Russakoff said membership in the club had dropped from a high of 100 women at its peak 25 years ago to just five women at the end.

“We were fighting for women’s rights and the (Equal Rights Amendment), but … this next generation that’s currently in their 20s, they’ve got it. They don’t have to fight for it. We did,” Russakoff, 84, said this week. “We stepped on the shoulders of our mothers and grandmothers for the work they did — that work is done — freedom to reproduce or not to, to vote. The fight is gone.”

In announcing the dissolution of the club in a letter to state club president Rayann Vanderzanden, of Trenton, Russakoff said the club closed its account at Franklin-Somerset Federal Credit Union and donated the $2,560.47 remaining to the Margaret Chase Smith Foundation, named for the Skowhegan native who was elected four times to the U.S. Senate. The money will be used for children’s field trips to the library, thus reaching a lot more people than scholarships, Russakoff wrote.

The club’s original 1922 charter also was donated to the foundation library in Skowhegan, where it is on prominent display.

“Margaret helped to establish the club in Skowhegan and then started to become involved in the statewide organization and became editor of the statewide newsletter for the Maine BPW and eventually became president of the Maine BPW,” library director David Richards said. “That all becomes significant because women’s groups were the way Margaret was introduced to politics, and those women that she associated with along the way became very important for when she started her political career.”

Margaret Chase Smith’s entry into politics came through the career of Clyde Smith, the man she married in 1930, according to her biography on the library website. Clyde Smith was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936; Margaret served as his secretary. When Clyde died in 1940, Margaret succeeded him. After four terms in the House, she won election to the U.S. Senate in 1948. In so doing, she became the first woman elected to both houses of Congress.

In 1964, Smith pursued her own political ambition, running in several Republican presidential primaries. She took her candidacy all the way to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, where she became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by either of the two major parties. In the final balloting, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. Smith got 27 delegates, fifth behind Goldwater, Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Gov. George Romney.

Margaret Chase Smith died in May 1995 in Skowhegan, where she was born.

The Maine Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, now called BPW Maine, is a federation of the national organization Business and Professional Women/USA. Founded in 1919, the club was established as the first organization to focus on issues of importance to working women.

Its mission statement gives its purpose “to achieve equity for all women in the workplace through advocacy, education and information.”

The state organization was formed in 1921, a year after women got the right to vote, and is composed of local organizations spread throughout the state. There are three remaining BPW chapters left in Maine — Waterville, the Ellsworth area and Fort Kent, Russakoff said.

“Life has changed so much,” Russakoff said. “Like the Grange, people are not joining. They don’t have the same enthusiasm and interest in community that we did.”

Davida Barter, a paralegal with the Skowhegan law firm Wright & Mills and past president of the Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs, said women’s clubs are alive and well. They just have taken on new identities in a more specialized professional and business climate, she said. Barter, 61, is a member of Semper Fidelis Club, which is affiliated with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, as is the Skowhegan Woman’s Club.

She also is a member of NALS, Central Maine, an organization for professional women in the legal field formerly known as National Association of Legal Secretaries.

“A lot of the professional women’s organizations have specialized in certain areas, like legal and insurance groups,” Barter said. “I think that instead of having a general group, they’ve started more specialized groups. We’re still very active and we’re very busy.”

Barter said she agrees with Russakoff that the early women’s groups largely accomplished what they set out to do in the areas of civil rights and better opportunities for women in the areas of education, public affairs, home life and conservation. She said young women in their 20s might not be joining clubs today because many of them are young mothers with children.

“They would be interested if they didn’t have so many things to do with their children, compared with what we had 30 or 40 years ago. There’s just so many things for the kids to do today,” she said. “The young women are very, very busy with the booster clubs at the schools and sports. They would be interested if their kids weren’t so involved in things.”

Two other women who were among the club’s final five members agreed with Russakoff and Barter on the changing times and the new interests of the new generations.

Joan Slipp, 78, of Anson, became a member when she was just 19 or 20. Marjorie Coburn Black, 71, of Skowhegan, was a BPW member for 45 years before the recent unanimous vote to disband.

“I feel personally that I’m that generation that has to close things,” Black said. “So far, my husband and I have closed two Granges and now the BPW. It’s a sign of the times, because the younger generation is not joining these organizations because they’re busy with their children and working. Nowadays the children are in many more activities than they were years ago, and the parents are chauffeuring them around to all these different things. It’s just a different lifestyle.”

Slipp said it is sad to see the club disband because of the loss of camaraderie that was shared with so many active women.

“The women were so wonderful. We had lots of members, and this was the focus of their life as far as clubs go,” Slipp said. “This was a service club, and the important thing was that you worked. It didn’t matter where you worked or how old you were. The ERA was prominent then.

“The nice thing about it was they shared their power. You didn’t have to wait until you were 50 or 60 years old to be an officer. They were just wonderful women.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow


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