The New Founding Mothers of New Hampshire

It only took two centuries: five women who made political history by winning all of their state’s top slots reveal the intimate, often surprising details of their varying paths to power

by Alexandra Starr
new hampshire state leadership image
From left to right: Senator Kelly Ayotte, Representative Carol Shea-Porter, Governor Maggie Hassan, Representative Annie McLane Kuster, Senator Jeanne Shaheen
Photograph: Illustration by Daniel Adel

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Walk the halls of the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, and you’ll be surrounded by portraits of old white men. The former governors and other political and civic honchos are decked out in Civil War regalia or velvety black turn-of-the-century attire or business suits with a distinct Brooks Brothers cut. In the anteroom of the governor’s office, however, is an island in this sea of testosterone: the painting of a woman, Jeanne Shaheen, former New Hampshire governor and current U.S. senator. And sitting in the office adjacent to that portrait is Governor Maggie Hassan, who recently became the second woman, after Shaheen, to be elected to the top job in the state.

New Hampshirites are accustomed to being under the microscope of the political cognoscenti. Every four years, reporters swarm the place during the first-in-the--nation presidential primary. In late 2012, however, the state attracted notice for a different political milestone. Its two sitting senators were women (Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte). When, on the night of President Obama’s re-election, women also captured the governorship (Hassan) and both seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (Annie McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter), New Hampshire suddenly became the first state ever in which female politicians held every top office.

To get a sense of how glass shattering that is, consider the rest of the country. Twelve states (plus the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia and Guam) have no women in their congressional delegations. Of that group, four—Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont—have never sent a woman to the U.S. House or Senate. Only five states, including New Hampshire, have female governors. (As More went to press, New Jersey’s 2013 gubernatorial race included a woman candidate, though the incumbent, Chris Christie, was strongly favored to win.)

How did the Granite State buck the old-boy culture that still permeates so much of the country? It started when women elbowed their way into state office. Historically, women have made up about a third of the representatives in the New Hampshire legislature, one of the highest proportions in the country. This is in part because representatives serve essentially for free: Pay is just $100 a year, the lowest of any state. So breadwinners, who have tended to be male, may be unable to give up their day jobs (or may lack the flexibility to take time off).

But lousy compensation is just part of the story. Women’s ascendancy here also stems from the state’s political culture, a grassroots style of governance that is tailor-made for women. With just over a million residents, New Hampshire is a small place that has a tradition of high-octane political engagement. Voters expect to meet candidates in living rooms, coffee shops and town hall meetings—and a system that prizes person-to-person contact plays to women’s strengths and experience. Until very recently, most women who have plunged into politics here have done so as an extension of their community work.

Their visibility at the local level has paid off in higher-stakes contests. New Hampshire, though tiny, happens to have the largest state legislature in the nation, so at any given time some 100 women are serving as representatives, familiarizing residents with the idea of women as government officials.

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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