Women were elected to higher office in record numbers Tuesday, and Maine made history with its first female governor and a record number of women elected to the Legislature.

“It’s a culmination for a lot of women. After the 2016 election, they were rising up, doing the marching, signing up (for training and to run for office) – all of that,” said Sarah Skillin Woodard, executive director of Emerge Maine, which trains Democratic women for political office. “They were inspired and thinking, ‘Oh, that looks interesting, maybe I’ll put my toe in.'”

On Election Night, those women – many of them political first-timers – won in record numbers in Maine and nationally. In Congress, a record 123 women will serve, up from the current 107, with some races still undecided.

“It has just snowballed, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Skillin Woodard said.

In Maine, voters elected 60 women to the House and 12 to the Senate, for a total of 72 women in the Legislature – claiming 39 percent of the total 186 seats.

The last Legislature had 64 women, or 34 percent of the seats.

“Mainers across the state have spoken and it’s clear – they are ready for new leadership from passionate public servants who will work together to create good-paying jobs, safe communities, and a stronger Maine for all working families,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. “With diverse backgrounds and new ideas, these women will be the voices women and families can count on in Augusta.”

‘A LOT OF THESE CANDIDATES FELT RELATABLE’

The first signs of a surge rose from the ashes of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential run, amid bitter disappointment that President Trump was elected. Women stepping forward to run for office said they were deeply inspired by the 2017 Women’s March and invigorated by the #MeToo movement that continues to shape the social landscape.

More than double the number of women ran for Congress in 2018 than in the 2016 cycle. In Maine, Emerge Maine added training programs to accommodate all the Democratic women who were interested in running for office – many for the first time. In the past, Skillin Woodard said, the women interested in running for office were attorneys or other professionals. Today, an increasing number don’t fit that mold.

“We encourage women of all stripes, of all backgrounds,” she said. “We find that women who are working class, who have been through some adversity in their lives, really connect with the voters. They fight harder and are more successful when they get elected to office.”

The number of female candidates who had that sense of authenticity, of running outside the lines of a “traditional” campaign, also struck Jean Sinzdak, associate director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

“Women ran on their own terms and the campaign messages were very different,” Sinzdak said. “You saw women breastfeeding in ads, showing their tattoos in ads, sharing their own ‘me too’ story or saying they had family struggling with addiction – it was a lot more personal than we’ve seen.”

“Regardless of the actual gains, campaign culture is shifting with what happened this year,” she said. “A lot of voters were hungry this year for authenticity. At the same time, women (were saying) I’m just going to be me, not hide motherhood or downplay that I have young children,” things that used to be seen as possible negatives if they were questioned about their ability to both serve in public office and be a caretaker. “Instead, it’s ‘I have young kids and that’s why I’d be a good legislator.'”

“A lot of these candidates felt relatable,” Sinzdak said.

‘A HISTORY-MAKING ELECTION FOR FEMALE CANDIDATES’

This election cycle has been compared to 1992, the first “Year of the Woman,” when a record number of women were elected to Congress.

According to the National Conference of State Legislature’s Women’s Legislative Network, there hasn’t been an increase in the share of women this large since 1992, when the nationwide percentage of elected women jumped from 18.4 to 20.5 percent.

“This was a history-making election for female candidates up and down the ballot,” wrote program manager Katie Ziegler, in a summary of Tuesday’s results.

With some races still outstanding, there are at least 123 women who will serve in Congress next year and at least nine female governors, tying a previous record, Ziegler said. At least 2,073 women will serve in state legislatures – a record – bringing the nationwide percentage of women serving to 28 percent, up almost 3 percent.

Maine is among the states with the highest percentage of women holding state legislative office, along with Nevada, where women will be in the majority, and Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Alaska, Arizona and Washington.

There are nine female governors, and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams has a chance to make it a record 10 if she prevails in that state’s closely contested race.

Maine has a record of sending women to Washington.

Margaret Chase Smith, a moderate Republican from Skowhegan, was the first woman to win election to both houses of Congress and the first whose name was placed in nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention, in 1964. In 1960, she and her opponent, Democrat Lucia M. Cormier, made history by taking part in the first all-women contest for a U.S. Senate seat.

Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, rose to leadership positions in Congress, and when 1st Congressional District Rep. Chellie Pingree was elected in 2008, Maine became the first state to have women as a majority of its congressional delegation.

BIGGEST GAINS AMONG DEMOCRATIC WOMEN

The Maine Legislature also has had a higher percentage of women than most states, in part thanks to political training by both Democrats and Republicans.

Republican Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, who was assistant minority leader in the Maine House of Representatives and narrowly lost a Senate race Tuesday, co-founded She Leads about five years ago to help Republican women run for office.

The overall number of women in the House will increase from 53 to 60 – but mostly in the Democrat column. The number of Democratic women jumped 40 percent, from 35 to 49 women, while the number of Republican women dropped 35 percent, from 17 to 11. In the state Senate, the number of Republican women remains at four, while Democratic women increased from six to eight.

Sinzdak said it was disappointing that Republican women lost ground in this election.

“Among the challenges looking forward is overall representation at the congressional level,” she said. “We lost Republican women, all the gains are on Democratic women. And we’ll never get to parity unless more Republican women are running.

“It’s a sobering assessment: Republicans just got more white and more male at the congressional level.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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