I grew up admiring Olympia Snowe, Maine’s senior senator. She was like a mythological hero to me — the only politician whose mere mention in my bipartisan household could dissolve a burgeoning argument and soothe my grandmother’s fear of controversy. That says a lot. Family lore includes an infamous story of a political throw-down between my hippie mother and my republican grandfather during the Vietnam War. The details are hazy, but the story ends with both of them storming away from the dinner table and my grandmother in tears. As far as my grandmother — a democrat — was concerned, a woman could do few things more impolite than to argue politics, unless that woman was Olympia Snowe. If I, not being Snowe, brought up politics around my grandfather, a proud conservative voter, my grandmother would furrow her brow and shoo me away.
“Don’t start,” she would say, glancing at my grandfather. “Let’s not have an argument here.”
But a woman speaking her mind was nothing to be embarrassed by when it came to Olympia Snowe. “That Olympia,” she’d say to me, pointing to the senator on TV. “She’s one tough cookie, I’ll give her that. She won’t be pushed around.”
Both my grandmother and my mother told me about Snowe’s hard-luck life (she was orphaned in 1956 at age nine, lost her first husband in a car crash at age 26, and watched her stepson die of heart failure in 1991). They talked about her characteristic independence, her penchant for “telling it like it is.” She was a Republican who hadn’t forgotten about the little guy. For me, the cartoonish figure of Snowe, her jet-black hair eternally pulled back into the same low ponytail, her accent stretching vowels like bubble gum, was more recognizable than any of the president’s men.
Olympia Snowe would protect me, I thought. I continued to believe that right up until January 31, when she voted to support George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Snowe, who throughout her political career had fought for reproductive choice and access to contraception, voted in favor of a man who was vehemently opposed by countless women’s-rights groups across the country and in Maine. Here was a man who, if the thousands who have dedicated their lives to preserving abortion rights are correct, will swing the court and cripple Roe v. Wade.
Snowe and Maine’s other US senator, Susan Collins, were the only pro-choice women in the Senate to vote for Alito.
So much for girl power.