|Girls' Day at the Capitol, Augusta,
By Melissa MacCrae
The State House opened its doors March
3 to welcome about 30 seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Eagle Lake to
Kittery for a day dedicated to them. The consistent message they heard
from Senate President Mark Lawrence, Senate Majority Leader Chellie Pingree,
Senate Minority Leader Jane Amero, House Speaker Steven Rowe and other
lawmakers was that the Legislature needs more women.
About a half-dozen women mentors volunteered
to shepherd the students around the Capitol for Girls' Day at the State
House, an annual event sponsored by the Women's Development Institute,
a nonprofit organization based in Augusta. The girls were met with a cacophony
of clanging bells and the rush of lawmakers clamoring down the hallways
of the Capitol under construction. Yet they rose to the challenges they
encountered throughout the day; their increasing confidence was tangible.
The girls left the adults behind as they
acted as pages for state representatives during a live session. They also
participated in mock public hearings on the bill that would prohibit the
use of the word "squaw" to designate public places. In one group, three
participants played the role of lawmaker; three were proponents of the
bill, the remaining three were opposed.
Three adult women experienced in lobbying
and State House politics coached the girls on their respective roles. Though
all the girls admittedly supported the bill, it was testament to their
ability to learn and argue the opposing position. In only 20 minutes, and
scant coaching, the soon-to-be women took their places and played their
parts. Some even devised their own lines and arguments to bolster their
The breathless morning traipsing up and
down the Capitol's marble stairways ended with a chilly walk across the
street to the Blaine House for lunch. Gov. King himself made an appearance,
touting his proposal to buy laptop computers for all seventh-graders in
Maine. He obviously expected a different response than the one he received
from pupils who could benefit from his plan.
One by one, about a half-dozen girls, who
appeared comfortable sitting cross legged on the floor in the luxurious
room decorated with antiques, commented on his proposal, and suggested
that the $50 million he proposed might be better spent on improving their
schools. On another timely issue, Miranda, who is on her Farmingdale school's
civil rights team, inquired about the tenuous funding for that project.
Other pupils had questions about the mandate on fingerprinting teachers
they knew and trusted.
Though many challenged him, King honored
his guests, listened attentively and responded to their concerns. Dressed
in casual clothes - some in chunky-heeled shoes - these future voters exhibited
poise, maturity and awareness of current affairs.
Then it was back the State House, where
we were escorted into the then empty House chamber to await Speaker Rowe.
The girls were invited to sit in the tall-backed leather chairs, where
lawmakers had conducted the state's business only moments before. Rowe
smiled broadly as he took his place at the rostrum overlooking the tiered
seating arrangement before him. He encouraged the girls to use the same
level of decorum generally used when conducting House business and to address
him as Mr. Speaker.
When he was asked, Rowe said he enjoyed
the power he earned when he became speaker, but was quick to explain that
as speaker, he must shed the mantle of partisanship and be responsive to
lawmakers from both parties and the one independent member.
Rowe encouraged those present - as they
vied for his attention - to get a good education and return for a career
in public service. But perhaps the greatest gift he gave the girls was
a heartfelt story about his own daughter Lindsay. Arriving home from school
one day, she announced she would run for class representative. When he
inquired, she told him that other posts up for election included the presidency.
But she declined to run because, she said, "Only boys are running." Her
father asked, "Why don't you try? You're popular, you get good grades."
She promised to consider it. A few weeks passed.Then Rowe received a call
while on the rostrum. It was Lindsay. She had been elected class president.
Her female classmates hailed her success.
With a lump in my throat, I wondered then
how many other girls today hear the words Rowe spoke to his own daughter
and to the girls present there. "You can do it. Just try." The day was
underscored by the fact that girls and women hunger for more leadership
role models. Girls' Day at the State House lasts but a day. But society's
investment in girls every day will result in empowering a new generation
of women leaders, some of whom one day will become president.
This article originally appeared March 15, 2000,
in the Bangor Daily News.
Melissa MacCrae is a feminist activist, writer and a NEWS copy desk editor