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

There is, of course, an ideological chasm between Ayotte’s record and the positions of a former antiwar protester like Shea-Porter. It seems to be the case, however, that even in today’s hyperpartisan climate, women are unusually successful at finding common ground, particularly around issues that affect women and children. Studies of state legislators have found that female lawmakers are more consensus oriented and collaborative than their male counterparts.

“During my time in the New Hampshire state senate, we went from four or five women serving to more than one third of the body being women,” says Shaheen. “That changed the dynamic. It was enough for us to be a critical mass. And I see it in the U.S. Senate. The Republican and Democratic female senators meet four times a year. I think that was instrumental in getting all the women senators together on the Violence Against Women Act. Kelly knew the importance of it because of her experience as a prosecutor and as AG. I think it’s notable we got [conservative Republican] Senator [Deb] Fisher of Nebraska.”

Women have also crossed party lines to tackle the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military. Ayotte teamed up with Senator Patty Murray (Democrat, Washington) to sponsor legislation that would provide victims with a special military lawyer when they report instances of abuse, and also prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees both during and for one month after basic training. Kuster recently signed on as a cosponsor of legislation that would enhance whistle-blower protections for service members who come forward with sexual-assault claims. She met the Republican sponsor, fellow first-year member Jackie Walorski of Indiana, when they were posing for a group photo of female congressional representatives. After trading compliments on their suits, the two struck up a conversation. “Right off the bat we identified this issue as something we wanted to work together on,” says Kuster.

Perhaps as important as the legislation these women are promoting is their very presence in high office. It doesn’t just help voters become more accustomed to women exercising power; it can also expand what girls and women envision for themselves.

“In 2006, I was the first woman to go to Congress from New Hampshire,” says Shea-Porter. “Now, six years later, the whole delegation is female.” A supporter phoned her after election night to share her granddaughter’s response to seeing images of the newly elected Hassan, Shea-Porter and Kuster on TV. “Look, Mommy!” she shouted. “All girls!”

Each of the power five is up for re-election in 2014 except Ayotte, whose term ends in 2016. Her Democratic challenger will probably be a woman: The conventional wisdom in New Hampshire is that if Hassan wins a second two-year term in 2014, she will emerge as Ayotte’s challenger in the 2016 Senate race. If Hassan defies prognostications and sits out the Senate contest, the thinking is that Kuster, now a Democrat in Congress, could be a contender. A woman-versus-woman matchup would again highlight how different the state looks from most of the country. “In New Hampshire,” says Dartmouth professor Fowler, “women are the major players.” In other words, women are the establishment now.   

Alexandra Starr has written for the New York Times magazine, Slate and others. She is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Join More and the New America Foundation on February 4 for a discussion of the rise of women in politics. Attend in person, or watch the live stream. Click here for details.

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First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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