Bill Nemitz: 50 years later, his fight for women’s equality continues


His goal, as elusive as it turned out to be, is simple.

“Susan B. Anthony died before the vote was given to women,” said Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, referring to the matriarch of the women’s suffrage movement. “And I don’t want to be the Susan B. Anthony from Maine, thank you very much.”

She talks about the Equal Rights Amendment, for which Reckitt has spent 50 of his 77 years defending rights at the federal and state levels. Tuesday, during a hearing at noon before the Judicial Committee of the Legislative Assembly, she will take up the case: LD 344, if it is adopted by two-thirds of the Legislative Assembly and then approved by the voters in November, would modify Maine’s once and for all constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on a person’s sex.

Say what? Did you think this was all resolved?

Think again.

The federal ERA, half a century after its first proposal, remains in limbo. Virginia became the 38th state required to ratify the Amendment in 2020 – Maine did so in 1974 – but its actual inclusion in the U.S. Constitution remains hampered by a 1982 deadline for state ratification and legal ruling. trouble in five states to withdraw support in the late 1970s.

A parallel effort by Reckitt to at least add an ERA to the Maine Constitution, meanwhile, was passed by the state Senate two years ago, but only missed a few votes in the House. Now it’s back – and this time around, we can only hope lawmakers will do the right thing and rush to pass it.

For Reckitt, it has been a long and often discouraging journey. It all started in 1972. While working as the Director of Swimming at the YWCA in Portland, she attended a speech by Wilma Scott Heide, then third president of the nascent National Organization for Women. Reckitt and nine other local women were so inspired by Heide’s speech that they formed a NOW chapter for southern Maine and began to advocate for Maine to ratify the ERA.

From there, Reckitt traveled to Washington, DC, in 1984 to serve as executive vice president of NOW, an elected post she held for three years. She then became Deputy Director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which she co-founded in 1980.

Returning to Maine in 1990, she spent the next 25 years as the head of Family Crisis Services, loudly advocating for victims of domestic violence.

In short, Reckitt has long fought the good fight for those who seek equal treatment before the law. And over the years, she has played a pivotal role in advancing this cause – the most notable achievement being the Maine Human Rights Act, which some say already offers the protections needed in the world. EER proposed by the State.

It does – and then some. The law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, education, credit extension and public accommodation, not only on the basis of sex, but also “race, color … sexual orientation or gender identity, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry or national origin ”.

The problem is, the statutes can be changed, as Reckitt said wryly, “at the moment of a LePage.” The state constitution, on the other hand, gives more weight and endurance to the idea that when all is said and done, we should all be treated equally under the law.

At the same time, Reckitt noted, the current law does not address other forms of discrimination against women that have continued unabated for decades. As Equal Rights Maine notes, women continue to face inequalities in pay, treatment in the workplace, access to health care and insurance, and sexual violence.

In a note to supporters last week, Reckitt said she could expand her bill “to extend the reach of (the state’s ERA) beyond gender discrimination” and incorporate others. protected classes listed in the Maine Human Rights Act. Philosophically speaking, this is not a bad idea – the more Mainers who are constitutionally protected against bigotry and social inequity, the better.

But politically, Reckitt knows she still has a tough row to beat – especially with a strong majority of House Republicans, who last week couldn’t even bring themselves to condemn the Jan.6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol and to honor the police. officers who defended Congress that day.

When it comes to a state IBA, Reckitt said, Republicans in the House “have been digging in for a while – before delving into everything else. It is really frustrating.

Reckitt said Governor Janet Mills planned to testify in support of the bill on Tuesday, as she has done in the past. Support is also expected from Attorney General Aaron Frey, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman and Portland lawyer Mary Bonauto, who six years ago successfully argued for the marriage. homosexual in the United States Supreme Court.

What if this august group can’t snatch a few much needed votes? Maybe Miss Maine 2021 can.

His name is Mariah Larocque. She lives in Bangor and made headlines last month when she had to withdraw from the Miss America pageant in Connecticut after testing positive for COVID-19, despite being fully vaccinated. Even after returning home with bitter disappointment, her peers saw fit to name her Miss Congeniality.

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse – her social platform for the contest – Larocque said she was ready and eager to join in “a conversation as important as fairness for all.”

“I’m always happy to link arms with amazing change makers – and Lois is that woman,” she said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to have a voice. And that is what it is – empowering people to use their voices, to have their voices heard and to have an impact so that other people have the same opportunity.

Larocque is 26 – roughly the same age as Reckitt when she took over for equal rights. Together, next Tuesday, these two women will be the generational bookends of a cause that will not die.

As Susan B. Anthony herself once said, “Oh, if I could live another century and see the fruits of all the hard work for women! There is still so much to do. “


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