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Maine’s influential U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on women’s positive role in government

During a dental exam when she was about 10 years old, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told her dentist that she might like to do what he did for a living.

“I was firmly told, ‘You can’t be a dentist! Girls lack the physical strength to pull out teeth!” Collins recalls during a recent interview from her home in Bangor.

She jokes that dentistry certainly hasn’t lost anything by her lack of participation, but that being told she was limited because of being female made an indelible impression. It made her want to spread the opposite message at every opportunity.

“I still love visiting schools and telling young girls, especially, that they can grow up and be anything they want, including a U.S. senator.” And, she says, that message is still relevant for grown women, too, especially those considering a run for public office.

“I’m always telling women to go for it and don’t be afraid to take the risk. What I hear over and over from women is ‘I don’t feel quite ready.’ I’ve never heard that from a man! Had I not taken the risk again after losing to my dear friend Angus King in 1994 (in the race for governor), I’d never have achieved my dream of serving Maine.”

Patricia McCarthy interviews Sen. Susan Collins at Collins’ Bangor home. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Collins says she is more than aware of the real obstacles women face beyond that lack of confidence.“I do know how hard it is. When I was running in 1994, I gave up my job at Husson (University) and couldn’t afford health insurance. I didn’t know how I’d pay for anything. I’m not exaggerating. I do recognize there are a lot of real obstacles to running, especially for women. But if you really want it, you have to have faith in your own abilities and get help from some role models like I did. I’ve learned the importance of good role models.”

Collins didn’t have to look far for encouraging influences as she started to consider public service. Both parents served as mayor of Caribou, where she grew up. Her mother was on the school board and served Maine in many capacities, including as a University of Maine Board of Trustees member. Her father served in both the Maine House and Senate.

Her parents taught her that staying on the sidelines wouldn’t work if you want to get things done, she says.

Her next important influence was the legendary Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, who had a powerful impact on an excited but nervous 18-year-old making her first trip to Washington, D.C. Collins was one of two Mainers chosen for the Senate Youth Program for outstanding students interested in public service.

“It was 1971, and I’d never been on an airplane, never met a senator. We flew to Washington to meet our senators, Edmund Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith. Sen. Muskie was very nice, took the generic photo and sent me on my way. Sen. Smith invited me to her office and talked with me for two hours! That’s hard to imagine now as my day is broken into 15-minute segments and I would’ve been interrupted 18 times!”

Collins, who framed Smith’s initial invite and the letter Smith wrote in response to her thank-you note, says she left that meeting thinking “women could do anything.” Collins sought Smith’s advice over the years and considered her a “great, gracious and encouraging” mentor.

“I hope for the day when it’s unremarkable that there are so many women in the Senate.”

“She always referred to herself as a senator, not a woman senator,” Collins says. “I hope for the day when it’s unremarkable that there are so many women in the Senate. Not having a sufficient number of women makes a difference in public policy.

“I’ve found women senators to be more collaborative than their male counterparts. I think they’re more pragmatic and more interested in getting to a solution in general.”

So Collins has carried on the tradition of another mentor—retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland—of bringing together the 21 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate for dinner every five or six weeks.

Whoever hosts pays, and Collins hosted her last one at the Library of Congress.

“These dinners build bonds of trust. We get to know each other as human beings. And there are three rules: No staff. We can talk policy but it’s not a time to get work done. And…no leaks to anyone outside the room.”

“We talk about family, the challenges of living in two places, about how we can be more effective. When I was brand new, Barbara, though I was not of her party, took me under her wing. She taught me things about how I could get projects funded for Maine. I knew the procedural, but she taught me the behind-the-scenes—to write a letter to the chair and ranking member of a subcommittee, to let them know I wanted to be a productive member of Congress, to have my staff follow up on meetings, to speak up. I wouldn’t have known to do some of these things without her guidance.”

This kind of cross-party collaboration and support is especially important now, Collins says, when the country is “much more divided” than when she began, when “hyper-partisanship” is the norm and “there’s been a coarsening in public dialogue.”

“It’s been challenging for people like me who believe in compromise.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who has served in the Senate since 1997, at her home in Bangor. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Asked what’s been most satisfying in her Senate career, Collins says she’s proud of work she’s done on behalf of veterans in Bangor, toward the revitalization of Bangor’s waterfront, and on public policy issues related to health care, homeland security, and funding for diabetes and Alzheimer’s research.

“And I know that my efforts to bring people together—senators of both parties—makes a difference. It resulted in a tripling of funding for diabetes, for example.”

On what drives her now, after two decades in Washington:

“I don’t know that it’s really different from when I started. It’s the same commitment to wanting to make a difference. In the arena of government, you do have the ability to affect people’s lives.”

And asked what she has sacrificed or if she has any regrets, Collins says she, like fellow women in Congress, often has struggled to maintain a healthy balance.

“I haven’t always gotten the home-work balance right. My family has always said I work too hard, too many hours. And that’s more evident now. My parents are both in their 90s, and my father has Alzheimer’s. I’ve often felt guilty about not getting up there enough.”

When she has the rare chance to relax, she chooses quiet.

“I love our camp on Cold Stream Pond in Enfield. I love going kayaking on the glassy clear water, and I recently finally decided to leave my cell phone behind when I kayak. That’s made a big difference. And I love to cook.”

What’s on the menu?

“Ah, I have an excellent recipe for slow-cooked spare ribs on the grill from (U.S. Sen.) John McCain. Then there’d be roasted potatoes, fresh corn on the cob, a salad and, for dessert, Melt-In-Your-Mouth Maine Blueberry Cake.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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