Raise their voices: Maine legislative women making meaning of feminism

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Sari Knopp Biklen


Maine, Meaning, Feminism, Women legislators

Subject Categories

American Politics | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Politics and Social Change


Today few would argue, publicly at least, that women's status in the halls of electoral politics is not an issue for significant discussion. In order to learn about the women around whom this discussion revolves, this study researched twenty-five rural white women doing feminist work in Maine's legislature to discern their meanings of "feminist political woman." The study foregrounds the voices of these women to explicate feminist work in Maine's legislature, how feminist women perceive the legislative environment in which they are working, and what feminism looks like in that environment. These women described in in-depth interviews their lives in electoral politics, their feminist sensibility and its effect on their legislative work, how they make meaning of negotiating the male-dominated political arena, and how they define the interaction between their private lives and their public roles. The work explores how political science research and literature has shifted (or not) from "sex" to "gender" in its analysis of women in politics, and moves on to discussions on gender theory, gendered leadership, and the gendered use of power for women and children. Also salient are the centrality of role modeling and mentoring; the generational evolution of liberal feminism from second wave to third wave; a common conceptual framework for the myriad feminist identities present in this research sample; the overriding strength of liberal feminism in directing the legislative work of these women; the falseness of the public/private dichotomy; leadership infused with situated knowledges derived from relational experiences in their private world (home and family) roles; strategies for doing feminist politics such as claiming feminist space, gendered use of power, and relational negotiation; and the struggle to bring language to their positions and public policy in a way that can be heard in the legislative context. The work concludes with an argument for a political ethic of care that conceives of politics as a system grounded in human relationships and compassionate social order that speaks to the way in which these Maine women understand the integration of their legislative work, feminist identities, and their lived experiences as a woman.


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