On March 1, in the Bangor Room of the Memorial Union, six women sat down to share their stories with the student body. The panel discussion was sponsored by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and was an intergenerational conversation about topics that included feminism, women’s rights and voting privileges in recognition of Women’s History Month.
Dana Carver-Bialer, the coordinator for leadership development at the University of Maine, introduced the panel and started the conversation by posing questions related to women’s right to vote in America. Each panelist got a chance to share their view of what voting means to them, and also to tell the audience about their own personal experiences with womanhood. The six women who spoke on the panel ranged in socioeconomic status, allowing a variety of different perspectives, opinions and experiences to be heard.
“My grandmother used to use the vacant side of our double family home as a safe space for members of the community to gather and talk about things going on in the news,” Carver-Bialer said. “These conversations start with women first thing in the morning, and they end with women who stay up and talk for hours into the middle of the night. We are powerful and can make change.”
Bev Uhlenhake, the mayor of Brewer, shared a story of her father and how she came to grow up in a family where openness and political activism were encouraged.
“He said to me once, ‘Women can do this thing called politics,’ which although didn’t get me thinking about running for office right away, did get me to realize that we can make a difference too,” Uhlenhake said.
Uhlenhake was also a former candidate for state senate and is an active member of the Maine local government, striving to improve rights for women and sharing her political views with other officers and groups of women.
Mary Cathcart is a local resident of Orono who grew up in the 1960s. Previously a member of the UMaine NEW Leadership Program, Cathcart is still an active member of the community and a voice among the others involved in women’s rights activism on campus. She was not able to cast her first vote as a woman until 1964, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and shared her story with the panelists and guests in attendance.
“Because of the time period that I was living in, I had to read a part of the Constitution and tell an employee what it meant in order to be able to vote. This was a way they tried to stifle and repress many citizens from voting, especially women and African Americans,” Cathcart said.
The panel represented a diverse discussion of issues related to women. Maulian Dana, a Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, decided to get involved in the community and government in order to help decrease marginalization and to help meet the needs of tribes in Maine. She is an activist who now represents the Penobscot Nation in front of the local government.
“We couldn’t vote in the Maine State Elections until 1967 as a nation, and Maine was the second to last state that allowed Native Americans to vote,” Dana said. “The government thought of our Native people as ‘the Indian problem,’ and we have to jump way back in order to remember the hardships they faced in order to get to where we are today.”
Olivia Baldacci, the youngest member of the panel, is a Bangor High School senior, an activist, and an active member in her community. Interested in women’s reproductive rights and feminism, Baldacci answered questions and told the audience that she strives to start making a difference in her high school years.
The panel also discussed other topics of sisterhood, female empowerment, accountability and what it means to be a female at any age in the United States.
“Sisterhood is being able to have difficult conversations and still come out of them being better people than we were before. This is crucial to our movement whether all women like each other or not,” Uhlenhake said.
Judicaelle Irakoze joined the panel discussion and mediated the conversation, asking each panel member their takes on different feminist situations. Irakoze, who is originally from Burundi, is a feminist, writer and founder of the non-profit organization Choose Yourself. Irakoze also created the Girl Talk platform as a way to bring women together in an open environment where difficult conversations could safely occur.
“At my non-profit organization, our job is to create conversations in different areas all over the world. We want to bring women together and discuss certain issues, both in America and other parts of the world,” Irakoze said.
Irakoze also works to help save women from refugee camps and writes about political events and issues — most recently the Kavanaugh trials. The first time she was able to vote was in this past midterm elections.
“We have to ask ourselves who we are voting into power, we have to make sure these women elected to represent us will be the right choice and speak for our needs,” Irakoze said. “When we vote bad, it hurts.”
Women’s History Month has been celebrated at the University of Maine for many decades, each year with new events and activities. The next upcoming events are on Monday, March 4, when the Feminist Collective hosts a Kick-Off Event in the North Pod of the Memorial Union, and on March 5 a Pancake Breakfast and Feminist Crafting will take place in the lobby of the Union.
To learn more about the panel discussion or first a list of future events, please visit https://umaine.edu/news/blog/2019/02/27/womens-history-month-begins-with-intergenerational-conversation/