Allyson Eslin, University of Maine. Originally published in Bangor Daily News August 2, 2017.
In the 21st century, something in politics went terribly sour.
It is clear, now more than ever, that the toxic dynamic in the American political landscape needs to change. The dialogue has become unhealthily vitriolic, full of hyperbolic hatred and, increasingly, personal attacks — some of which, alarmingly, have turned physical. The attack on the Congressional Republican baseball team is just one jarring and recent example.
The good news is that the first step in changing the level of political dialogue is as simple as helping more women, particularly diverse populations of women, become leaders.
The better news is that Maine is leading the charge in doing just that.
Powerful women have been getting things done in Maine for decades. Beginning with Margaret Chase Smith — who historically took a principled stand against McCarthyism and Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself in 1950 — and continuing with both Sen. Susan Collins and former Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Pine Tree State has consistently sent its best — including its best women — to Washington.
The aim to encourage women’s leadership is something of a bipartisan bonding agent, bringing together Democratic and Republican lawmakers in one of the most divided periods in American political history.
Maine is an incredible example of how nonpartisan women’s leadership training can make a difference. Both major political parties offer rigorous campaign training to Maine women, while Maine NEW Leadership — held each June at the University of Maine — offers a week-long, intensive leadership experience for 28 college students from every political background. It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that these programs are part of why the Maine Legislature is 34.4 percent women, roughly 10 percent above the national average.
Women bring something special to the table nationally, too, specifically in Congress. Congressional women consistently bridge ideological divides, making huge strides in issues from education to immigration, while some of the Senate’s most “persuadable” partisans remain its female members.
The resolution of the 2013 government shutdown is largely attributed to the hard work of bipartisan women, while congressional women made headlines in early 2016 for running the show during Winter Storm Jonas. Such willingness to listen, coupled with an incredible sense of personal accountability (Collins has yet to miss a single vote) is what allows for at least some compromise among intensely polarized parties, even when it can appear that common ground is entirely absent.
Look no further for evidence of the pragmatism of female lawmakers than the recent “defectors” from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act: three Republican women recently profiled by the New York Times — Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Shelley Moore Capito.
Female staffers on the Hill also form uniquely long-lasting relationships. It’s not uncommon to find staffers who specifically seek out other women for mentorship and development. Frequently, female interns also find friendships with one another. Common experiences and hardships bond interns of different political backgrounds — making lunch between women in the Capitol something of a bi — or even tri — partisan affair.
Strong women make for a strong republic. Strong, diverse women make for an unassailable republic. Because it has such a strong history of female leadership, Maine is uniquely equipped to lead the charge — empowering women to get involved in corporate, federal, state and municipal leadership in a way that empowers us all.
Allyson Eslin is pursuing a dual master’s in economics and global policy at the University of Maine. Maine NEW Leadership is co-directed by Mary R. Cathcart, who served four terms as state senator and three terms in the Maine House of Representatives, and Amy Blackstone, a Scholars Strategy Network member and professor in sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at UMaine. Both contributed to this column.