“Hi! I’m your new governor!”
Maggie Hassan cheerfully introduces herself to the security guard in the corner at the newly reopened Gorham Paper Mill in northern New Hampshire. The female guard shakes her hand, a little confused. The scene repeats itself several times during the half-hour tour, with the biker guys and bearded men in plaid shirts who work the tissue-producing machines.
When she is inaugurated on January 3, Hassan will become the country’s only female Democratic governor, and the chief executive of the first state to elect an all-female state delegation, consisting of returning Democratic senator Jeanne Shaheen (who was governor from 1997 to 2003), returning Republican senator Kelly Ayotte, and congressional representatives Ann McLane-Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter. Thirteen years ago, Hassan didn’t even want to be in politics.
Her story — as well as those of the other four women — is a reflection of a unique political system that has inadvertently produced a watershed moment. New Hampshire has, by accident, solved a problem that all three waves of modern feminism have faced: How to put women in positions of true power and authority. McLane-Kuster says her mother, who served as a state senator, used to joke that New Hampshire politics “is women’s work,” but it’s not entirely a joke.
In a state with an abnormally large, unpaid legislature, the ground-level civic engagement that has always been the province of stay-at-home-moms — school boards, letter-writing campaigns — becomes the work of low-rent state legislators. These positions carry less of the fanfare or pay that come with legislatures in almost any other state. But they do something else: They offer a path past a glass ceiling that, in other states, can block women with similar career paths from running for Congress from their perches on, say, school boards or community groups.
The result is hard to argue with: Women wield virtually all of the political power in the state.
“I don’t know that it’s the best legislature,” says Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, a non-profit that works to put women in positions of power. “But the one thing it does is bring in women.”
In New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan’s quick ascent in politics is, you could say, a fairly typical story, though it would be unusual in many other states. “I didn’t intend to run for public office,” she says, sitting in the passenger seat of her staffer’s dirt green Jeep. “I didn’t really think about it.”
In the ’90s, Hassan was a successful New England lawyer with a husband and two young children. Her life was steady, but not easy: Her son Ben, now 24, suffers from cerebral palsy, which leaves him unable to speak, walk, or use his hands. It requires, as Hassan puts it, “parenting in high relief.” Though she didn’t consider herself political, her combined corporate attorney’s background and understanding of special needs in education turned her into an obvious advocate. Her family had a household income that allowed them to hire help with Ben, but Hassan understood that most families didn’t. So in 1999, the state’s first female governor, Jeanne Shaheen, asked Hassan to serve on a school funding board, where she’d represent the interests of public-school parents. In Concord, she quickly met key players in the political scene, and by 2002, she was encouraged to run for a State Senate seat when a candidate dropped out of a race last minute. She won.
At first, she was hesitant. “I got the call asking me if I’d do it,” she says. “And I called my husband. He had a job, I had a job, and I told him I didn’t think I should do it, because we were too busy,” she says. Hassan’s husband works as the principal of Philips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire. The family lives in a house owned by the school near the campus. “But he said, you know, you’d be good at this, so let’s make it work,” sipping her second or third Dunkin’ Donuts coffee of the day. She used to order a large because it was the most “financially efficient,” but has recently switched to mediums because she could never finish the whole cup.
Hassan won that race. And, without placing a crippling financial burden on her family, she was able to take on the barely-paid work, thanks in part to the unusually flexible law firm for which she worked. While Hassan was able to earn income as a state senator, such flexible yet lucrative jobs are extremely rare.
Members of New Hampshire’s state senate and state legislators are virtually unpaid. It’s a part-time position, which isn’t uncommon — but in every other state, representatives get either an annual salary of a few thousand dollars or a per diem payment of a few hundred. In California, legislators made $95,291 a year in 2012. In New Hampshire, they make $100 a year. This, local leaders agree, has been an essential factor in getting women into office.
“Not to diminish the social accomplishment [of the all-female delegation],” says Robin Comstock, President and CEO of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, who moderated a discussion between the five elected women in early December. “Our legislators are unpaid. So they’re volunteers. Some of us talk that it’s interesting that women have found this place of leadership.”
And most New Hampshire leaders and political insiders don’t couch the subject that much: They agree, nearly universally and without much reservation, that the unpaid, volunteer nature of the legislature has historically drawn in women — particularly, women whose husbands can support the family — while discouraging men.
“It’s definitely a factor. It’s not highly paid,” says McLane-Kuster. It was particularly true, she says, a few decades ago when her mother served as a state senator. “For a lot people, if they had to be a breadwinner in the family they couldn’t afford to do it. More and more women could, because they typically had someone in their family who was in the workplace.”
Hassan agrees. “The fact that a New Hampshire legislator’s position is not seen as a career or a way of supporting a family has meant that it draws women,” she says. “At times I think men who might be looking for a paid career have known that they couldn’t make one out of serving in the legislature. So there’s a little more space for women.”
“It allowed a lot of women who in other states might not have a shot at being elected,” says Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “It certainly opens doors, where it’s essentially volunteer, whether it’s after women have raised kids, or have retired, or for one reason or another were wealthy.”
In 2012, the five elected women all had established and successful careers before seeking office; they weren’t riding their husbands’ political coattails. But the financial ability of women in the state to take on these elected roles has been essential in paving the way for all the record-breaking of the past decade or so.
“The first generation of women in politics were widows of politicians, and the next generation were wives and daughters,” says McLane-Kuster. “In this group, it’s very apparent that three of us are lawyers, one was a teacher, and one was a social worker. We’re working mothers. We’re the next generation.”
Of the five elected women, only two — Hassan and Shaheen — previously served in the state senate or legislature. Before she was Senator, Ayotte was the state’s appointed attorney general, while McLane-Kuster was a lobbyist in the state house. Shea-Porter, a former social worker, reportedly decided to run after working as a volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The current delegation may not have paved the road, but they have broken the records. Shaheen is the first woman to ever serve as both a governor and a senator. In 1999, New Hampshire became the first state to concurrently have a female as governor, Senate president, and state House speaker. And in 2008, the 24-person state Senate became the first majority female legislative body in the country, with 13 women and 11 men.
Those accomplishments — and the ones of the current delegation — are the products of a state that has long embraced and allowed women to participate in government in an unprecedented way. “The women rising to the top of the legislature in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s really set the stage for the successes of the women in the last decade,” Buckley says.
The unpaid nature of the state legislature definitely opened more spots to women, but the abnormally huge number of seats is also highly important. In a state of just 1.3 million people, there are 400 seats in the House and 24 in the Senate. That means roughly in one every 3,000 people is a state senator or representative. By contrast, Pennsylvania has the second most State Representatives, and they only have 203. They also have twelve and a half million people. California, which has a population of 37 million, has just 80 seats in its House.
Across New Hampshire, the high ratio of politically engaged people is evident. On Hassan’s tour through the sparsely populated North Country, the rooms are overflowing at each stop with local residents who also seem to really expect something out of their elected leaders, not terribly surprising when there are politics in every neighborhood. In Groveton, an almost eerily quiet town characterized by a shut-down, half-demolished mill, dozens of local business and owners show up for a meeting in a small, dusty room in the building that houses the local tax collector’s office. When Hassan has to leave after about 30 minutes to make it to the next stop, the room seems genuinely disappointed that not everyone got to put in their two cents in about what initiatives might help boost the local economy.
At the next stop, at a hospital in Berlin, it seems like every person in the room of about 40 is somehow involved in governance — whether on a local zoning board or jobs committee or any number of other commissions and initiatives. Everyone knows each other. Everyone has worked together. People are frank, and want to get down to business. In a heavy New England accent, one man proclaims, “To be honest, I didn’t vote for you,” but still announces that he hopes to work together on getting loans to small businesses. Another man asks if he can get Hassan’s email to discuss some topics further, after a lengthy tirade on the rundown state of highway rest stops in New Hampshire. Everyone is engaged. Because everyone is in politics.
People in New Hampshire often joke that in a state without any professional sports teams, politics are the local pastime. It’s not much of a joke though.
By design, this means women have to take on political roles. Nearly everyone in the state will rattle off the fact that the New Hampshire Congress is the third largest English-speaking parliamentary body in the world, after the British House of Commons and the United States Congress. Someone simply has to do the job. “It’s such a large legislature and a small population that you really need to look for people to run for office,” Hassan says. “When you are in a small rural place with cold weather and a lot of granite, you need people who are going to work hard and you really stop worrying about what gender they are.”
And because there are jobs to fill, women in office often take it upon themselves to convince other women to run. “I spend a lot of time talking to women interested in office about how they can make it work,” Hassan says. Women are often concerned about striking a balance, she says, but a short encouraging phone call can go a long way in convincing.
The tradition of female mentorship and encouragement in New Hampshire also weaves a telling web through the current delegation. As a State Senator, McLane Kuster’s mother was a mentor to Shaheen. And Shaheen, now, is something of a mentor to Maggie Hassan, having appointed her to her first position in the state.
If you have a system that encourages women to take political leadership roles, 2012 was the perfect election season, across the country, but particularly in New Hampshire. What Democrats branded the “war on women” raised the profile of debates over access to birth control and the funding of Planned Parenthood, and came to be characterized by blood-boiling comments from right-wing candidates like Todd Akin about which rapes could be considered “legitimate.” Across the country, women candidates rode that wave, particularly in the Democratic party, of which all five New Hampshire women except Ayotte are members.
And progressive women may have been particularly effective candidates in New Hampshire, where all the “war on women” issues had been brewing for years. Though the large size and unpaid nature may have boosted women, the state legislature has also been dominated by Tea Party representatives in recent years. In 2011, they defunded Planned Parenthood. In early 2012, the House also voted to allow employers with religious objections to exclude birth control coverage from their company healthcare plans. That’s not just religious institutions like Catholic hospitals — any religious, or “religious,” boss could say he wouldn’t pay for birth control.
“New Hampshire has been ground zero for the Tea Party,” Hassan says. “We were seeing on a national stage what had already played out [here].”
Hassan’s opponent in the race for governor, Ovide Lamontagne, was an anti-choice Republican man. Hassan won the election with 55 percent of the vote — and 60 percent of the female vote.
“I’ve always believed that, all things being equal, if both candidates are equal, if one is a male and one is a female, the female has a slight edge in New Hampshire,” Buckley says. Gender even worked in Senator Ayotte’s favor during her 2010 race, he says, despite her being a fairly staunch social conservative.
“It certainly helped her,” he says. “The polling showed that voters in New Hampshire had a hard time believing her stands were her stands. I think a lot of New Hampshire voters did not accept the premise that she was anti-choice because she came across as moderate, as someone who would be moderate, even though that is not her record in any way.”
Some say the new all-female delegation was actually the product of shrewd planning on the part of Democratic strategists. “Having all women wasn’t coincidental. It was a strategy. A good strategy,” says Andrew Smith, Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Politicians and political operatives say that wasn’t the case. “There is no puppetmaster,” Buckley counters.
Either way, there were open seats for taking, there were women to run, and there was a system that supported and encouraged them to do so. A sense of growing national female pride certainly didn’t hurt. It was, you could say, a perfect storm.
“I don’t see it happening anywhere else soon,” says the White House Project’s Wilson, about the prospect of another all-female delegation in another state. “It’s such a different system from what we have in any other state.” It’s not just that there are seats for women to take in the New Hampshire House, she says, but also that the candidates typically know their constituents. Since there are so many districts and they tend to be very small, women don’t have to spend as much money or time getting elected.
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, however, doesn’t entirely agree. “I don’t think there’s any empirical evidence that the structure of a state legislature affects who is in it,” she says.
But as Wilson puts it, “New Hampshire is a petri dish of political leadership.” In other words, it’s an interesting experiment, but structurally, it’s not necessarily a model for copying.
New Hampshire isn’t replicable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. Experts agree that the key factor in getting women into high political office is having women already in office who can act as role models and encouraging figures to would-be political females. According to Lawless, women nationwide are a third less likely to receive any encouragement to run. And women are likely to think they won’t be able to juggle the job. “Women are less likely than men to think they’re qualified even when they objectively have the same qualifications and credentials,” she says.
So if there are more examples of women running the show — as they do in New Hampshire — more women will probably run for office. The New Hampshire women, as Wilson sees it, are part of the “long trail of Hillary Clinton.” As women see that an all-female delegations is possible, and as they see a woman like Clinton, succeed, they’re encouraged.
“We forget that when people see a woman like Hillary who has triumphed and who is being talked about as the candidate for 2016, they feel more respected,” she says. “So it’s very powerful for women across the country to see that story.”
As you drive across New Hampshire, you can’t help but notice the irony: on every license plate and road sign, there’s a logo of “The Old Man In the Mountain.” It’s as stiff and masculine a face as they come. But the greater, forgotten irony is this: ten years ago, the “face” collapsed. More recently, they decided not to restore it.