Gail Laughlin (1868-1952)
A native of Robbinston, Abbie Hill "Gail" Laughton was born to Robert and Elizabeth Laughlin on May 7, 1868. One of nine children, she grew up seeing her widowed mother struggle to support the family, and from girlhood, was determined to improve women's opportunities. Her intelligence and ambition made her a high achiever: she graduated with honors from Portland High School in 1886; worked as a bookkeeper while attending Massachusetts' Wellesley College; and went on to earn a law degree from New York’s prestigious Cornell University in 1898. At age 30, she opened a New York City office specializing in tariff law.
These credentials justified President Theodore Roosevelt's 1900 appointment of Laughlin to the U.S. Industrial Commission, a position she used to investigate the conditions of rural, immigrant, and nonwhite female domestic laborers. Four years later, the National American Woman Suffrage Association made a very good decision in hiring Laughlin as a field organizer.
Working out of Denver – where Colorado women had won the vote a decade earlier – she practiced law while also managing campaigns for the vote in western states. She further honed her governmental skills with service on the mayor's advisory council, the Colorado pardons board, and in the Progressive Party. When she moved to San Francisco for California’s victorious 1911 campaign, Laughlin worked as a police court judge and lobbied for the right of women to serve on juries.
Juror inequality was one of the reasons why feminists followed up the 19th Amendment, which settled the voting issue, with a proposed 20th Amendment: the Equal Rights Amendment was filed with Congress in 1923. Women also followed up the vote with the establishment of several new organizations, including the National Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW). Although Laughlin had returned to her home state by then, she maintained her national network and was an early president of BPW, which soon became the era’s most feminist organization. In 1924, she led a 200-vehicle motorcade from Portland, Maine, to the Black Hills of South Dakota to raise awareness on the Equal Rights Amendment.
Her political life in Maine thus did not begin until she was in her 50s, but in 1928, Portland voters elected Laughlin to the first of three House terms; she moved up to the state Senate in the 1934 election. A moderate Republican in Maine's long tradition of such, she continued to champion feminist issues, as well as humane treatment of animals, control of dumping in the state’s waterways, funding for Moosehorn Wildlife Refuge and for a state department of health. In 1941, she set a precedent by becoming the first woman to serve the Maine Supreme Court as recorder. Gail Laughlin was inducted into the Maine Women's Hall of Fame in 1991.
Image credit: Legislative Biographies, 1941.