We’ll Be There

The Maine Women’s Lobby has advocated for women in Maine for nearly four decades

“[We’ve] come a long way over 40 years,” says Pat Ryan, a founding member of Maine Women’s Lobby, an organization advocating for women’s freedom from violence and discrimination, access to healthcare and economic security in the Maine Legislature.

Ryan was among the women inspired by the historic 1977 National Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas. Ryan says, “We felt emboldened.”

Immediately stepping into action back in Maine, the group of about a dozen women set out to secure state funding to shelter women subject to domestic violence or abuse. The proposed bill had bipartisan support, giving the group such confidence they decided to go home while the appropriations committee continued to discuss matters well into the night, Ryan says.

“We came back the next day and expressed our surprise” upon learning a last-minute adjustment left the program on the cutting table. “A legislator said, ‘Well you weren’t there.’ We decided that would be the last time we wouldn’t be there,” Ryan says.

With pluck and $2 membership fees, the group founded the Maine Women’s Lobby in 1978. Enough membership dues were collected to fund a part-time employee who would be the voice in the halls when the Legislature was in session.

Executive Director Eliza Townsend, agrees that the lobby has made great strides, but she counters, “Every time we look at a newspaper or another piece of media, we’re reminded these issues are very much still around.”

Recently the lobby partnered with other organizations to implement a level of protection for victims of domestic violence or assault. Townsend says, “We learned it was common practice for employees to be fired.”

The bill received widespread support and legislation was implemented, giving victims the right to take unpaid leave to attend court proceedings, doctor appointments and legal counsel. Furthermore, employers who fire victims can be fined $1,000 and ordered to pay damages or offer the employee her position back.

Danna Hayes, director of public policy at the Maine Women’s Lobby, speaks at press conference before a public hearing at the State House. Photo courtesy of Maine Women’s Lobby

Currently, the lobby is working on legislation to develop a system of paid leave when an individual gives birth, adopts or experiences some other major qualifying situation, such as significant care of an elderly family member. The program would be funded in part by payroll deductions, creating insurance for individuals to draw upon if needed because, as Townsend explains, “Most people can’t afford to take unpaid time off.”

“Public policy is a way to impact people’s lives on a greater scale and make long-lasting differences,” says Kathy Kilrain del Rio, 43, the lobby’s director of program development. “We have a real range of women involved. Some members have been with us for decades, and we also have young members who met us through the 2016 election.”

Kim Simmons, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, is one of those volunteers. She discovered the lobby in 1996 when she sought out like-minded feminists.

“I started volunteering and fell in love. Their mission is my mission,” Simmons says. “I cannot personally keep up with every proposed bill, every awesome idea coming from another community or every serious problem that is shaping women’s lives,” she says. “Knowing the Maine Women’s Lobby is paying so much attention and will alert me when I can be of use is a huge benefit for me.”

Mainers can support the lobby through donations or membership dues, which in essence crowd-funds the organization’s mission. “Or we can jump in to help testify on bills, organize events and grow our own leadership with the support of others,” says Simmons, who is also a former board member.

Townsend adds, “We’ll always welcome women who want to speak up, talk about their story and share with political leaders why these issues are important.”

For more information, check out mainewomen.org and sign up for action alerts.

For more research reports and events, visit the Maine Women’s Lobby’s younger sister, Maine Women’s Policy Center at mainewomenspolicycenter.org.

Stay tuned to the Maine Women’s Lobby for news about 40th anniversary celebrations at facebook.com/mainewomenslobby.

Emma Bouthillette, a Biddeford native, is the author of “A Brief History of Biddeford.” She loves a good book and walking the beach with her corgi. www.emmabouthillette.com

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