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

That unique political alchemy was helpful, but it didn’t give New Hampshire’s matriarchy, as the press has dubbed the women, a seamless, easy ride to the top. Sometimes they needed to convince themselves of their fitness to serve before they could make their case to voters. Looking back on her own hesitancy, Hassan advises women contemplating a run to acknowledge their insecurities and concerns but also to remember that “everyone has [insecurities], and that doesn’t disqualify you from running for office...You shouldn’t make a decision based on what the perfect candidate should be like.”

Here, the five women at the wheel in New Hampshire share their experiences: why they ran, what worked, what didn’t and how they pushed past failure on their often surprising paths to power.

“What, me run?”

Hassan, 55, says she had no intention of putting her name on a ballot until she was recruited. This is true of many women officeholders: A study conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found that female state legislators were almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to say they opted to run because someone else had suggested it.

Hassan was recruited by the Democratic members of an education advisory committee to which she had been appointed by then governor Jeanne Shaheen (see chart here) after distinguishing herself as an education advocate for her son, who has cerebral palsy. Advocacy is what “took me up to Concord,” Hassan likes to say. Still, when she was urged to run for a state senate seat that had opened up, her first instinct was to refuse. In a phone call to her husband, she ticked off the reasons. She had a full-time job as an attorney. Both of their kids were in school, and Ben, who cannot walk or talk and receives most of his nutrition through a feeding tube, required an enormous amount of care. Her husband countered that she should jump in anyway. Tom Hassan held a senior position at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the nation’s premier boarding schools (he is now the principal), but he assured her they could manage at home. “Honey, you’d be good at this,” he said. He also sounded a note of warning: “When is someone going to ask you to do this again?”

Shea-Porter, 61, now in Congress, was similarly reluctant. “Like every other woman, I did 40 roles simultaneously,” says the former social worker. “I didn’t plan to go into politics. Before I ran for Congress, I hadn’t run for dogcatcher.” But she grew up in a politically engaged family and notes, “I’m a direct descendant of General Stark,” the Revolutionary War hero whose words “Live free or die” became the state motto. “I can remember as a two-year-old holding signs, attending political rallies.” She volunteered on Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential primary campaign and then on John Kerry’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat President George W. Bush that fall. She also demonstrated against the Iraq War. Twice after Hurricane Katrina, Shea-Porter traveled to New Orleans, where she was once deputy director of a senior center, and was outraged by what she saw. “The federal government was missing,” she asserts. “We could do better. We had to do better.” The 2006 congressional midterm elections were coming up, and, as she recalls, “a Democratic committee member said, ‘Why don’t you run?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ That was my pat answer.” Even after she finally agreed, she almost changed her mind. She was about to sign up when doubt overcame her and she “got back into my car, drove halfway home, then thought, I’m going to do it, and drove back.”

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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