New Hampshire voters on Election Day decided that women would represent them best, making their state the first in the U.S. to put female politicians in control of the governor’s office and the entire congressional delegation.
Democrats Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster ousted incumbent Republican men to represent the state in the House and join Senators Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, who weren’t up for re-election. Governor-Elect Maggie Hassan, a Democratic state senator, will replace Democrat John Lynch, who chose not to seek a fifth two-year term.
The achievements build on New Hampshire’s tradition of breaking gender barriers. In 2008, when Hassan was re-elected to the senate, the state became the first to have a majority-female legislative body. Female representation in Concord, the capital, has beaten the national average since at least 1975, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“Whenever you’re making decisions, you want a variety of experience and perspective,” Hassan, 54, said yesterday outside the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, where she thanked supporters. “It’s very important for voters to understand that men and women can be leaders.”
Hassan, who defeated Republican Ovide Lamontagne, is the second woman elected to lead the 236-year-old state, after Shaheen became the first in 1996. Twenty-three states have never had one, according to Rutgers data.
Women made gains throughout the nation on Nov. 6 and will occupy a record 20 U.S. Senate seats in January, including five who won first terms -- in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Nebraska and North Dakota. All will take seats held by men, and four of the five, including Democrats Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, are the first women elected to the office in their states.
Currently, 17 women serve in the 100-member Senate. That’s up from seven after the election of 1992, which was dubbed the Year of the Woman.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried New Hampshire this week, winning 52 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Obama led by 11 percentage points among women nationally, according to exit polls.
Both Hassan, a lawyer from Exeter and former senate majority leader, and Shea-Porter, who won back the post she held for four years beginning in 2007, were voted out of office in 2010, when Tea Party supporters swept to victory. Kuster lost a bid for Congress in 2010.
New Hampshire’s small size, legislative map and libertarian streak helped propel the women into the record books.
Its 1.3 million residents are represented by 424 state lawmakers, one of the largest English-speaking governing bodies in the world. That makes the barriers to entry lower than elsewhere. Candidates need to raise less money, achieve less name recognition and secure fewer votes to win, said Dante Scala, who teaches politics at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
“That has benefited women who have pursued office,” Scala said. “Once the first women have blazed the trail, it becomes easier for more to get elected because voters are more used to seeing women in power.”
Jackie Cilley, who lost to Hassan in the gubernatorial primary, said she spent less than $500 on her first campaign for state representative in 2004.
“If you had any presence on the school board, you had all the name recognition you need,” she said. “Some people didn’t even put out signs.”
With so many offices to fill, parties need to expand beyond the typically male-dominated pools of potential candidates. State lawmakers earn an annual salary of only $100, which deters many who seek to make politics a career, Scala said.
“The culture here is very participatory,” he said. “We have a lot of activist, amateur involvement, not strong party machines like the Democrats in Massachusetts or New York, and so there’s a lot of room for politically interested people to operate even if they don’t have a lot of experience.”
Hassan’s entrance into politics was marked by two conditions that often prompt women to seek office. She was asked by others to run and she was involved in a social cause close to her heart and family life. In Hassan’s case, it was activism on behalf of a son with a disability.
Had she lost Nov. 6, Democrats wouldn’t have had a woman leading a state government for the first time in 17 years. That caught the attention of women’s groups such as Emily’s List, which recruits and helps fund pro-abortion female candidates, after legislative battles over access to contraception and abortion have increasingly moved to state legislatures in recent years.
Amy Bradley, a 36-year-old mother of two daughters from Manchester, stood outside the Red Arrow as Hassan thanked supporters with hugs.
“The fact that we have an all-woman delegation is just so inspiring, and I’m so proud of New Hampshire,” she said as 2-year-old Ava slept on her shoulder. “It means everything to me. It’s going to mean everything to them, to know that they are not limited because they are a woman.”