When Kate Snyder takes the oath of office at noon Monday, she will become the first woman elected by voters as Portland’s full-time mayor.

That’s hardly a big deal in 2019 in Maine, where women hold leadership posts in all three branches of state government. Gender was not a hot topic during the campaign, when Snyder defeated three men to win the seat.

But a look back at Portland history shows how Monday’s inauguration at City Hall will culminate a recent and dramatic shift in local politics, part of a well-documented national surge of women running for and winning political offices across the United States.

And along with the mayor, the new Portland City Council that begins work Monday will be historically diverse in terms of race and religion, as well as gender.

Since her win, the 49-year-old Snyder said she has been able to reflect on what her victory means for women and girls, such as two 9-year-old girls excited to meet her on election night or a group of female students from Baxter Academy excited to see her in a pre-election debate.

“I think there’s an opportunity to bring female voices to the table in a way that maybe has not been done as explicitly in the past,” Snyder said. “I don’t know what that means yet. I have thoughts about engaging voices in new ways, but it’s not just female voices. It’s other voices. It’s youth voices. It’s elderly voices.”

Snyder’s election follows Janet Mills’ inauguration in January as the first female governor of Maine, joining Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley as leaders of the state’s government. And it comes after 2018 elections that sent a record number of women to the Maine Legislature, as well as to Congress.

“There is definitely a national trend going on,” said Ronald Schmidt Jr., a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine. “At the moment, it seems like women are more likely to vote, more likely to run for office and are improving their chances of winning in elections.”

Schmidt said women’s marches in response to Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016 showed the potential for a sustained rise of women in politics. That momentum, driven largely by suburban women, seemed to continue through the 2018 midterm elections, he said.

When Snyder is inaugurated for a four-year term on Monday, she will be joining what is one of the most diverse nine-member councils in the city’s history.

In addition to four women, there are two immigrant councilors – Councilor Pious Ali, who is from Ghana, and incoming Councilor Tae Chong, who is from South Korea. Ali, who will be sworn in for a second term, was believed to be the first Muslim to win election to public office in Maine. And there are two other people of color on the council – Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau, who placed second in the mayoral race but has two years remaining in his second term as councilor.

Snyder will be the third person to serve as full-time mayor since the current post was created in 2010. Portland voters also elected full-time mayors for many years before 1923. But in that era, and for many decades after, local offices were filled almost exclusively by men.

Between 1923 and 2010, Portland’s City Council appointed one of its members to serve as its leader for the following year. The part-time, ceremonial post was called the chairman for many years and then the mayor.

Even under the previous system of appointing a chairman or mayor each year, the job was held by men through most of the city’s history.

The first woman to lead the council was Helen C. Frost, who in 1944 became only the second woman ever elected to the Portland council. The following year, the 43-year-old Stroudwater resident was chosen to chair the council – a position that would be renamed as mayor in 1969. Frost was selected again as chairwoman in 1950.

Under the headline “A woman in power,” the Portland Evening Express depicted Frost in a 1982 story as having “crashed the stag party” and described the council as a “private club.” Those who knew her described her as an aggressive, informed leader and a tough negotiator.

Though she was described as the business community’s candidate, she reportedly told an audience at a local Rotary Club that she opposed tax abatement and other government subsidies to stimulate the city’s sluggish post-war economy. “Business leaders must not sit back and expect government to take the initiative in planning a better economy in Portland – that is your job,” Frost said.

Frost’s leadership, however, was an exception that would not soon be repeated.

Maine’s largest city would not have another female leader of the City Council until 1981, when Pamela Plumb was selected as mayor for a year. She would be one of four female mayors to lead the council throughout the 1980s. The others were Linda Abromson, Cheryl Leeman and Esther Clenott.

Anne Pringle was the only female mayor in the 1990s. The 2000s featured three female mayors: Leeman, Karen Geraghty and Jill Duson, who served twice.

All told, Portland has had eight women chair the council or serve as mayor in its 233-year history as an incorporated community, although none before Snyder had been elected mayor in a citywide vote or had the advantage of a City Hall office, a full-time salary and a four-year term.

The incoming Portland City Council will have four female members, including Snyder. That has happened before in recent years but is seen as another sign of the shift from Portland’s past.

Former Mayor Leeman said having women appointed to lead the council seemed like a bigger deal even a couple of decades ago than it does now. But Leeman also believes the shift has real impact on how the city is governed. At one point during Leeman’s tenure, the council included five women, a majority.

“There were a number of 5-4 votes that were split along gender lines,” Leeman said. “There’s no explanation for it because we certainly all worked in the best interests of the city. But there was this environment that was different.”

Leeman said female leaders helped move the city forward by securing federal grants, including one for the Portland Museum of Art; oversaw a change in city managers; and helped usher in an era of historic preservation efforts. And, Leeman said, she is confident that Snyder can produce similar results for the city.

“It’s a very good first for Portland,” Leeman said. “Leadership is about passion, compassion and commitment, which Kate brings to the table, and as a woman in politics, she will serve as a wonderful role model for other women and young girls.”

Heather D’Ippolito, the partnership and outreach coordinator for Baxter Academy, thinks it has real impact on the next generation, too.

D’Ippolito has taken students to see pre-election debates for the last two years, and the only students who signed up to go were young women. And they were excited to see Snyder onstage this year.

“They are paying attention to where women are taking up space now,” D’Ippolito said. “I think that’s a big shift. And they seem to know to look for women in places that may not have been places for us in the past.”


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