At 78, and with a successful legislative and activist career to her credit, Mary Cathcart could be resting on her laurels. Resting, however, is not Mary’s style. The busy Orono woman recently found time to speak to Maine Women in between Zoom meetings.
“I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, and where I grew up influenced the way that I wanted to change the world,” she said. “I had two parents with college degrees. We didn’t have any money when I was little, but relatively speaking, we were privileged. My father had an engineering degree. His dream was to start his own brick plant, and he was able to. There were some years of struggle before it took off, but I wasn’t aware of that. I had two loving parents, a nice little house, plenty to eat, and my school was nearby.
“I don’t know when I became so aware of the racism and the privilege that white people have,” she said. “We had a cook who lived on the other side of the tracks. The way it was in my town, black people lived on the other side of town in very poor houses. White people lived in better houses and held the privilege, while black people were engaged in cooking, cleaning, and domestic servant jobs.”
Mary said she attended an “all-white public segregated school in Mississippi through graduation from high school.” She then majored in English at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I was in the generation where my parents said, ‘I know you don’t think you want to take education courses, but you should be prepared to teach in case something ever happened to your husband.’ I was good at math, but I wasn’t told, ‘You could be an engineer,’” Mary said.
Mary lived in New York for a while, taking a course in guitar and “doing some folk singing.” Then she began studying for her master’s degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “That was where I met my first husband,” she said. “We got married the next summer.”
Mary took a job with the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, becoming a copy editor for Abingdon Press. “It was a fun job,” she said. “I am still Facebook friends with a couple of the young women, not long out of college, that were part of our small group. I enjoyed working there.”
Work took the couple to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where their two children were born. And then Mary’s first husband got hired into the English department at the University of Maine in Orono. With the younger of her children attending the Montessori school in Bangor, Mary, in her mid-30s, became involved in the Parent Teacher Council.
“The only people I was meeting were basically ones with kids, and colleagues of my husband’s, who were very nice, but I was kind of looking at ‘what do I do now?’ One thing I found interesting was the domestic violence program, which was called Spruce Run then. Mary said that she didn’t feel that she had ever been abused in any way. Still, “I decided to sign up for volunteer work there. I had a 40-hour training for hotline volunteers, and I did that hotline for a long time.”
“My mother was always for the underdog,” she said. “And I remember in high school, running for student council president, and I lost. She told me, ‘boys always get to be president; girls always get to be vice president or secretary.’ I wondered why boys should always get the best and girls, second best. I think I was a feminist, even though I wouldn’t have thought it then. I naturally gravitated toward feminist organizations.”
Her first weekend on the hotline cemented her commitment. “I took a call from a woman with three little children who needed a safe place to stay. I went to meet them at a local hospital and took the family, with their belongings in plastic trash bags, to the only shelter in the area at that time, operated by the Bangor Welfare Department. After that, I was just hooked. I couldn’t believe people went through this and were able to escape, and I wanted to do my part.”
A Pathway to Politics
After a few years as a volunteer, and going through a divorce, Mary took a paid position at Spruce Run. “That led me into politics because I got to be part of the statewide Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, when they were writing Maine’s first Protection from Abuse legislation.” She also got a seat on the Maine Commission for Women.
“They were interesting women to work with, and I thought, ‘I want to be more involved here.’ Maine is a small state. If you get involved in the legislature you can actually change things.”
Mary served three terms in the Maine House of Representatives, followed by four terms as a State Senator (1996–2004). Mary also chaired the US Commission on Child and Family Welfare (1995–1996) at the appointment of former US Senator George Mitchell and served on the New England Board of Higher Education (1997–2008).
Second husband, Jim Dearman, retired during Mary’s years in the senate. The couple met at a Democratic fundraiser in 1990 and married in 1994.
In 2004, Mary became a senior policy associate at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. In 2006, she began the Distinguished Maine Policy Fellows program. And in 2009, she founded the Maine National Education for Women (NEW) Leadership program, a six-day, nonpartisan, statewide institute which aims to encourage undergraduate women to become more politically and civically engaged at the local, state and federal levels.
“I worked much longer than I thought I would,” said Mary, noting that she was over 60 when she joined the Margaret Chase Smith Center. “But once I got the NEW Leadership program going, I loved that, loved working with the young women. And I miss my colleagues. The Margaret Chase Smith Center was wonderful to work in.”
From her schedule, it’s hard to tell that Mary ever left the workforce. “I really did retire,” she said, laughing. “I have a lot of things to do. I’m active in my church. I’m a lector, and next week, I’m making chili for our brown-bag Fourth Friday Community Supper that the church has always done.” The event is now grab-and-go due to COVID. Mary is also in a church book group. “We’re discussing Dead Man Walking,” she says. “I heard the author of the book, Sister Helen Prejean, interviewed on PBS. The book is quite good and gets you thinking about these things.”
Mary also exercises and uses future travel aspirations as her motivation. “I love to travel, to go back to the same places, like London and New York, and to new places, when I can, and to see family in Massachusetts and New York State. . . I’m trying to stay well enough that I can travel,” said Mary. She gets in the pool at the Y once a week and is taking Silver Sneakers classes online. She dreams of visiting the African continent and seeing some of the wildlife there.
Her lively interest in others, curiosity about life, and commitment to positive change are all on-going and much in evidence. Mary enjoys taking part in the local and state branches of American Association of University Women (AAUW). She serves on the Maryann Hartman Award committee (and was an award recipient in 2006). “Dr. Hartman was quite a feminist and advocate for women and a pioneer in the use of oral interpretation to influence public policy, so that’s a fun group of younger women,” said Mary. “There are still a couple of ‘oldies’ on it.”
And, she continues, “I’m on the board of the Wilson Center for spiritual exploration and multi-faith dialog, which serves University of Maine and the surrounding community.”
“It’s a very rewarding experience!”