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First woman to hold the state’s top office

When Janet Mills was a little girl growing up in rural, western Maine in the 1950s in a Republican family in a Republican community, she never envisioned that one day she’d be a lawyer, never mind run and win a Democratic campaign for governor.

“I didn’t grow up with these political ambitions,” Mills says. “I was a secretary and receptionist in a law firm, and I thought to myself, ‘I could do that. Why not me?’”

Photo by Heidi Kirn

And so began the steadfast journey of a woman who would shatter all sorts of glass ceilings: As the state’s first female district attorney, first female state attorney general and, as of last month, the first female governor.

Politics run in the family. All four of Mills’ grandparents held elected office. Her father was a U.S. Attorney for Maine. Her eldest brother, Peter, served in the Legislature and ran for governor—twice—as a Republican and now heads up the Maine Turnpike Authority. Her sister, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, directed the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and is vice president for Clinical Affairs at the University of New England. The Mills family isn’t exactly a clan of wallflowers.

She describes being “challenged by the politics of cynicism, of fear, of distrust, of anger.” She saw a better way.

“I think tone is important,” she says. “We want to change our attitude of state government toward its mission. State government needs to be user-friendly, customer-oriented and, at the same time, fiscally responsible.”

At her acceptance speech in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 2018, Mills said, “Tonight I hope this election sends a powerful signal to the women and girls in Maine of any age—there is no obstacle that you cannot overcome.”

She made a joke that night and again at her inauguration Jan. 2. Of the 75 governors in the state’s history, she says, deliberately letting the joke unfold slowly, she’s the first (another pause) to be elected “from Franklin County!” Downplaying it during her inauguration speech, Mills said, “Truly, this year’s milestone will one day be commonplace, like drinking milk or eating toast.” But that night was filled with nods to Maine’s shattered glass ceiling, and the biggest applause of the night was for two little girls, Shy Paca, 11 and Natalia Mbadu, 10, as they finished a rendition of Alicia Keys’ anthem to women, “Girl on Fire.”

Mills was one of the co-founders of the Maine Women’s Lobby 40 years ago and served on its board of directors. But she talks far more about legislative issues—dealing with climate change, workforce challenges and the cost of education and healthcare—than she does about women’s equality.

“I think tone is important. We want to change our attitude of state government toward its mission.”

“I put my money where my mouth is,” Mills says. “Issues like minimum wage and health care tend to affect women more than men, statistically. The Me Too movement, the Women’s March—a lot of these things have brought to light issues that women face uniquely in and out of the workforce.”

At 71, she’s been a leader long enough to have seen other times when women held a significant number of positions of power in Maine—and then watched as the numbers dwindled again.

“Ten years ago in Maine I was attorney general and there was a woman Speaker of the House, a woman Chief Justice and a woman director of public safety,” Mills says. “We were everywhere in positions of power.”

Last November, a record 72 women were elected to the state legislature, up by eight since 2017—or up 5 percent in one legislative session.

“That’s some progress,” Mills says, adding that a child care facility at the State House complex would be another step in the right direction.

In that same November election, Mills won 317,000 votes, more than any governor in Maine history.

Looking back on her recent victory, Mills says she was touched by the words of author Bill Roorbach on social media: “Here in Farmington we’re sweeping up all the shattered glass that fell from above last night and turning it into light: meet the first woman governor of Maine!”

“That’s kind of beautiful,” Mills says. “And I’ve received handwritten notes from little girls saying how much more hopeful they feel about their own opportunities in life.”

But it’s not only little girls she has inspired.

Amy Paradysz lives in Scarborough and writes about women, organizations and community happenings that empower.