The first female Secretary of State… who almost wasn’t.
Shenna Bellows, 45, carries a copy of the United States Constitution in her purse and lights up when she talks about it.
“There’s nothing more important than the integrity of our elections and citizen participation in our democracy,” says Bellows, who began a two-year term as Secretary of State in January.
She’s the 50th person—and the first woman—to serve as Maine’s Secretary of State, a role that involves overseeing state elections as well as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Maine State Archives.
“We’re still in an era when we’re seeing the first woman of color elected as vice president, the first woman governor of Maine and the first woman as Maine Secretary of State,” Bellows says. “At some point, I hope we see the last of the first, that we really do achieve full representation.”
Bellows was sworn in on Jan. 4, two days before rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. As state capitals nationwide guarded against threats, Bellows’ first week as steward of state archives involved arranging for some of Maine’s most precious artifacts to be moved offsite for safekeeping.
Bellows is well-known in Augusta, having served as a State Senator the past four years, representing District 14, which includes her hometown of Manchester and 10 other towns in Kennebec County. In March, she oversaw the special election to fill her vacant Senate seat (and when Craig Hickman was elected, he too made history—as the first Black man to be elected to both houses of the Maine State Legislature).
In the fall of 2020 when candidates were announcing their bids for Secretary of State, Bellows was interested. But she held back, at first. She loved representing District 14. And being chosen as Secretary of State by the State Legislature seemed like a long shot. She’d only been in the Senate four years.
Why Bellows held back—and why she launched a campaign three weeks before the vote—can perhaps be illustrated by a story that she often shares with Girl Scouts. Bellows’ kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Johnson, asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. All the little girls were saying that they wanted to be teachers. But not Bellows.
“I wanted to be an artist or president,” she says. “But I didn’t dare say it.”
She followed suit, saying she wanted to be a teacher. The memory stuck with her because she wasn’t true to herself.
“Speak your truth, even when it’s scary to do so,” she tells girls. “And you can be whatever you want in this world.”
As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maine from 2005 to 2013, Bellows chaired the 2011 Protect Maine Votes campaign that successfully restored same-day voter registration. She was a leader in the Coalition for Maine Women, fighting for reproductive choice, and a leader of Maine’s Marriage Equality campaign. In fact, she waited to marry her husband Brandon Baldwin until their gay and lesbian friends could marry, too.
More recently, she spent two years as executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, an Augusta-based nonprofit that uses the lessons of the Holocaust to inspire people to reflect on and confront prejudice and discrimination.
“I have dedicated most of my career to advancing civil liberties and civil rights,” Bellows says.
As a student at Ellsworth High School taking driver’s ed, she didn’t dream that one day she’d oversee the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. But she was fascinated by economics, the workings of government and wanting to make the world—not just Maine but the world—a better place.
“Having a female Secretary of State sends a message to our daughters and granddaughters that you can be anything you want to be in this world.”
At just 15, she went to Brazil for a year as an exchange student, learning Portuguese. Later, while enrolled in Middlebury College in Vermont, she spent a semester in Costa Rica, becoming proficient in Spanish. She graduated in 1997 with degrees in international politics and economics—and significant student debt that she chipped away at working with an economic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. until wanderlust struck again. The Peace Corps sent her to Panama, where she spent two years as a small business development consultant working to unite two groups of rival ceramics artisans.
“It was a little bit like being asked to bring together the Manchester Democrats and the Manchester Republicans for a joint community development project,” Bellows jokes. “What we ended up doing was creating two identical micro lending programs for the two associations. A few years later when I went back, I was really proud to see that the micro lending programs were still going strong.”
She started a Junior Achievement chapter at a high school in Panama and led a group that promoted economic and educational opportunities for women and girls.
Then she was back in the United States as an AmeriCorps volunteer, working to promote educational and economic empowerment for youths—mostly Black youths—in Nashville’s largest public housing project. Although urban poverty doesn’t always look the same as poverty in rural Maine, Bellows drew from a wellspring of personal experience that she says gives her a great deal of empathy.
“I grew up without electricity or running water until I was in the fifth grade,” she says. “We were poor. But I had tremendous teachers and a wonderfully supportive family.”
After the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, Bellows applied for 100 nonprofit jobs all over the country, and she was hired by the ACLU national office in Washington, D.C., to organize civil liberties campaigns. It was her dream job, even though it wasn’t “home.” By her late 20s, she was ready to come home to Maine. That’s when the ACLU of Maine was looking for an executive director. Bellows almost didn’t apply, thinking it would be a long shot. But she did. And she would spend the next eight years at the helm of the nonprofit that describes itself as the “state’s guardian of liberty.”
“The work of the Secretary of State is a natural extension of my career in civil rights,” Bellows says. “Representation matters. Having a female Secretary of State sends a message to our daughters and granddaughters that you can be anything you want to be in this world. I am fully committed to representation, not only of women in leadership but Black, indigenous and people of color in leadership.”
It has been a century and a few months since Maine women were granted the right to vote, and now we have the first female governor and the first female Secretary of State.
“The suffragists advocated for the right to vote for women because that is foundational to full participation in society,” Bellows says. “Yet, despite legal equality for men and women in our country and our state, we still see systemic inequality that arises because of institutional sexism and racism. Representation helps to change institutional barriers and cultural perceptions about equality. We still have not realized the promise of equal protection under the law that we see in the Bill of Rights, because we are still dominated by primarily white men in positions of power. But that’s changing in the Maine legislature and in Maine state government, and it’s changing nationally.”