PORTLAND — The conversations were flying fast and furiously around a table at the Holiday Inn banquet room in Portland May 23, amongst women ranging in age from late 20s to 50s. They debated whether feminism is dead, or merely dormant. Did it get rebuked by a society weary of activism, and more intent on making money? Did women get complacent in the 1980s and 1990s or were they consumed by work? Were they still thinking about glass ceilings? Do women know they still earn, on average, 77 cents on the dollar that men earn? Is this country raising strong, aware and competent girls, and boys?
The perspectives were varied; a younger woman, who works at a southern Maine inn, said she grew up in a generation indifferent to the feminist movement, regarding it a legacy of the past, like the hippies. The older women, in the middle of their career and child-rearing years, said they had taken for granted the work their grandmothers and great-grandmothers had done to move them into a world where they could choose a career, and a life, they wanted to pursue.
And they argued vehemently about it all.
If that was just one table's stream of discussion, imagine 60-plus other tables, with similar conversations likewise under way.
The setting was the annual Maine Women's Fund Leadership Luncheon, which drew more than 650 women from throughout the state to hear stories of women and girls who benefited from fund grants over the past year, and to celebrate accomplishments. The luncheon is an annual event, since the fund originated in 1989. This year, however, the energy ran exceptionally high and was marked by eloquent speeches.
Recipients of this year's donations include:
A Company of Girls. The grant will be used for a theater arts program for girls ages 8 18 to develop participants' teamwork, confidence and sense of personal responsibility.
The Community Schools at Opportunity Farm and Camden, to expand the Passages Program, which serves pregnant and parenting young women through a home-based high school diploma program.
Hardy Girls Healthy Women, enhance and expand its Adventure Girls program, designed to introduce Maine girls to concepts of leadership, coalition-building, financial independence and non traditional careers and avocations.
Maine Women's Policy Center, to create policies to increase access to education and training, ensure women are paid fairly for their work and enable workers to meet their job obligations while providing care to children and adult family members.
Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, to support the Maine NEW Leadership program, a free, intensive, residential, six-day, nonpartisan public leadership training institute for undergraduate women statewide.
REAL School, to offer a five-week intensive summer STEM Academy for at-risk girls ages 14-18 aimed to provide teambuilding, cultural awareness, therapeutic adventure, postsecondary education and career exploration, therapeutic arts interventions and clinical level social work services.
Safe Voices, to assist women fleeing domestic violence through its residential shelter, educational trainings, 24-hour helpline and community education and prevention activities.
Trekkers, to scholarship funds for girls enrolled in a nonprofit, outdoor based mentoring program that connects young people with caring adults through expeditionary learning.
Women, Work and Community, to conduct outreach, coordination and promotion of the mini-grant program that will target marketing and business growth through its At Home on Main Street initiative.
The nonprofit also registered a spike in annual donations to the nonprofit, evidenced in the collection baskets passed around during the luncheon. Women opened their purses, pulled out pens, and tucked checks in varying amounts, from $10 to $1,500, into growing bundles. Their generosity resulted in a collective $38,000 gift for the nonprofit, which will turn around and distribute that money to organizations the economic security of Maine women and girls. Last year, the Maine Women's Fund, with main offices in Camden and Portland, distributed $80,000 to organizations.
"The vision of the fund is a just and caring society in which Maine women and girls thrive so communities prosper," said Sarah Ruef-Lindquist, executive director of the Maine Women's Fund, and Camden resident.
"For nearly 25 years now, this bold organization has made investments that Maine women and girls have returned many times over as leaders and business owners in their communities, providers for their families, and role models who inspire and empower others," wrote U.S. Congressional Representative Chellie Pingree, in a letter of congratulations to the Fund for another successful year on the job.
The luncheon served also as the opportunity to recognize strong Maine women making strides on a variety of fronts, and for their humanism.
The Fund bestowed on Samantha Appleton, who grew up in Camden, its Sarah Orne Jewett award, bestowed annually on a Maine woman who exhibits the attributes of the women in Jewett's novels, including true grit, independence, courage, humor and discipline.
Appleton, a photographer, is known for her photographs taken around the world in war zones and areas of conflict — Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Africa and in the United States, focusing her lens on human and social issues. She was most recently an Official White House Photographer for the Obama administration. She began her career as a writer and became a photographer after assisting James Nachtwey. Her work strives to show that quiet, subtle moments make up the complicated components of large news stories. She has won numerous awards including Pictures of the Year, World Press Master Class, American Photography and Camera Arts. In addition to her photography, she is currently writing a non-fiction book about the war in Iraq.
"Samantha Appleton inspires us with photos that illuminate the complexity of national and international news stories," wrote Senator Angus King, in his congratulatory letter to the Fund.
Other award recipient were:
• Anne Taintor, Tribute to Women in Industry, given to a leader in her field and who has achieved significant accomplishments as a business owner, executive or nonprofit leader. Taintor is an artist whose work in collage combine vintage images with Taintor's interpretations of what the men and women in those images might really be thinking.
• Izzy Labbe, Julia Bluhm and Maya Brown, Samantha Smith Award. The three are members of the advisory board of Hardy Girls Healthy Women. When Julia Bluhm wrote a petition asking Seventeen magazine to include non-Photoshop-adjusted spread in each issue, Izzy Labbe followed up with a video of her classmates critiquing the magazine's beauty ideals. Seventeen responded with a Body Peace Treaty in August 2012, committing the magazine to celebrate every type of beauty and pledged to never digitally alter the faces and bodies of girls. They also delivered a TEDx talk last year about it.
"Leadership comes in many forms and has many dimensions," said Ruef-Lindquist, in her introductory remarks at lunch. "If you've read Lean In, then you know that at least Sheryl Sandberg feels women today need to lean in to build on all that feminism and the women's movement helped us to achieve thus far. As she put it, 'the promise of equality is not the same as true equality.'"
The Fund, she said, had asked groups in 14 of Maine's 16 counties to help understand the challenges to to economic security for Maine women and girls, on a local level. There, they asked community members to help consider the Fund's grant proposals.
Additional speakers at the luncheon included:
• Jessica and Taleisha, graduates of the Money Wise program and residents of the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center. The Money Wise program of Women Unlimited of Augusta offers financial literacy education, wage negotiation skills and employment training in correctional facilities.
• Kaila Gagnon, 18, a senior in the Passages Program of the Community Schools at Opportunity Farm and Camden. A grant from the Fund supported expansion of the Passages Program, which serves pregnant and parenting young women through a home-based high school diploma program. She spoke emotionally and strongly about overcoming negative reactions against her teenage pregnancy, and how she fough back when the assistant principal at her high school told her she would not be able to attend school while pregnant.
• Janyce Boynton, cofounder of Madder Root LLC, of Old Town, with business partner Christina Lannan. The Fund granted the expanson of Catalyst for Change, a statewide project of Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community. A Catalyst for Change supports low-income businesses that want to grow into new markets. Madder Root does hand-printing and grew out of a mutual interest in fabric, screenprinting, the environment and all things kitchen.
Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at email@example.com; 706-6657.