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In These Times

By Rebecca Hellmich

The Granite State is poised to become the first state in the U.S. to achieve gender parity in elected office. Here’s how they did it.

The people of New Hampshire take great pride in holding the nation’s first presidential primary every four years. But the Granite State has a new claim to fame: its number of women in elected office.

As reported after the 2012 elections in Bloomberg Businessweek, New Hampshire became the first state in the U.S. “to put female politicians in control of the governor’s office and the entire congressional delegation.” Over the course of American history, men have usually been in that position—women first won a congressional or gubernatorial election less than a century ago, and even today, Iowa and Mississippi have never elected a single woman to those offices.       

But after the 2012 election, in which Maggie Hassan won an open seat election for governor and two women swept the U.S. House races to join two previously elected female U.S. senators, New Hampshire became the first state to reverse that historic norm. Today, New Hampshire women hold those seats as well as the office of mayor in two of the state’s five largest cities. Moreover, just over a third of state legislators are women, placing New Hampshire fifth in the country for state legislative representation.

And New Hampshire may gain another historic distinction on Wednesday: the first-ever state to achieve gender parity in elected office.

Earlier this year, Representation 2020 released the first of its annual State of Women’s Representation reports, featuring the organization’s Gender Parity Index (GPI). Defining parity as “the point at which women and men are just as likely to hold elected office,” the GPI establishes parity scores on a scale from zero to 100 for how well women are represented in elections for governor, Congress and other major city and statewide offices. A gender parity score (GPS) of 50 indicates that a state has reached gender parity.

After the 1992 elections, the national median GPS was 9.8. That median has crept up to 15.9, with eight states still lagging in single digits, trailed by Virginia with a GPS of only 4.5.

“The Gender Parity Index,” explains Representation 2020 project director Cynthia Terrell, “allows us to measure trends within and among states over time. It shows us just how far we have to go, especially when we look at elections for executive offices like governor and mayor, where growth of women’s representation is particularly stagnant.”

Due to its outstanding performance in 2012, New Hampshire achieved the highest-ever Gender Parity Score of 47.5. This week, New Hampshire is poised to make gender parity history again.

Male candidates are running strong challenges to Gov. Hassan, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. But given the weight the Gender Parity Index gives to the office of governor and to recent elections for governor and Congress, Hassan’s re-election will likely result in New Hampshire becoming the first state to cross the 50.0 GPS threshold and achieve gender parity in elected office.

After the 2012 elections, one journalist described the synchronicity of factors that went into the election of the nation’s first all-female delegation as “a perfect storm.” The question is, how was this “perfect storm” of gender parity achieved, and how can New Hampshire maintain it?

Ingredients for Gender Parity in New Hampshire’s Elected Offices

New Hampshire has a history of women candidates doing better in the state legislature than in most states. As long ago as the mid-1980s, women held more than a third of seats, and it’s never dipped below 25 percent since—even as women have yet to reach that percentage of state legislative seats nationally. In 2008, the state’s senate became the nation’s first to have majority women, with 13 of 24 seats held by women. (That share of seats has now dropped to nine of 24.)

Such success stories are quite new for federal offices, however. In fact, the first woman to win an election for U.S. Congress in New Hampshire, Rep. Shea-Porter, was only elected in 2006.

In the following years, women took New Hampshire state and federal elections by storm, including wins for both U.S. Senate seats: Democrat Jeanne Shaheen (who also served as the state’s second female governor from 1997 to 2003) in 2008 and Republican Kelly Ayotte (who had been appointed as the state’s Attorney General in 2004) in 2010. In 2012, Maggie Hassan became New Hampshire’s third female governor, Ann McLane Kuster regained the second U.S. House seat, and the first ever all-female congressional delegation in U.S. history was created.

When it comes to understanding the history of female representation in the state, it starts with the House. New Hampshire’s lower house has one distinct characteristic, often referenced when the issue of gender parity comes up: its size. The House of Representatives has 400 members, making it the largest individual chamber in the nation despite the state’s relatively small size.

The house also uses a system in which districts can vary greatly in population, ranging from single-winner districts where only one member is elected, to multi-winner districts where up to 11 members are elected (thus more than one candidate “wins” the election).

Many researchers suggest that multi-winner districts increase the chances of women being recruited to run and to win. Voters also seem to factor in voting for women differently when given the chance to vote for more than one seat. In the 2012 election, for example, every one of the six Democrats able to win in multi-winner districts electing more than five representatives was a woman, edging out Republican men in each case.

These unique parts of New Hampshire’s electoral structure present more opportunities for women to run and get elected in the first place, creating a pipeline for higher office. They also provide a state government with more local engagement.

“You have a high level of engagement and a high level of communication with your legislature because of the size, because of multimember districts, because there’s 400 others in the lower house,” Erin Vilardi, director of the national nonpartisan organization Vote Run Lead, says. “You’ve got people that you’re really accessible to. That creates a really healthy democracy inside New Hampshire.”

Raymond Buckley, the Chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, suggests that New Hampshire’s political parties contribute to the state’s legacy as a gender parity leader. “State parties can, and in the case of the NHDP do, play a role in encouraging women to hold positions of leadership and responsibility at every level. Women hold four of the six positions on the Democratic National Committee from New Hampshire.”

The state legislature is also a part-time job, to the point of essentially being a volunteer position. Salaries are on the lower end of the spectrum ($200 per two year term) when compared to other states, like California, where legislators can make upwards of $90,000 per year.

Some theorize that this has encouraged women—or at least older women who can afford it—to run because it contributes to turnover and fewer men seeing it as long-term job. Gov. Hassan observed in a Buzzfeed interview, “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.”

While this may help create chances for older women able to afford to serve without compensation, it also might create barriers for young women, who are important for a state’s pipeline to higher office. None of the New Hampshire women serving in Congress or as a governor started their careers in the House.

There seems to be a “strong tradition of women supporting other women” in New Hampshire, says Clare Bresnahan, program director of the She Should Run, a sister organization of the Women's Campaign's Fund. “The idea of role models—to be able to see so many women in New Hampshire politics become the norm, and then you’re also getting that actual mentorship and sponsorship, is invaluable but also hard to quantify. But it’s incredibly important to how the women have come up through the ranks in New Hampshire.”

The experiences of the current trailblazing female delegation are certainly reflective of this: Former New Hampshire Senator Susan McLane mentored and encouraged her daughter, Ann “Annie” McLane Kuster (who now serves as Congresswoman) and Jeanne Shaheen when she was the state’s second female Governor (now serving as Senator). Shaheen now mentors Gov. Hassan.

Vilardi suggests that this kind of mentorship complemented with the existence of recruitment groups like Emerge Vermont has led to a generational, almost cyclical, development and cultivation of women politicians in the state.

As Kuster puts it: “The first generation of women in politics were widows of politicians, and the next generation were wives and daughters. 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.”

Buckley agrees that female mentorship plays a role in getting women elected, especially for the current delegation. He also points out that women can actually have a slight advantage in New Hampshire.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon,” Buckley says.  “When all things are equal, women have a slight advantage with NH voters. It is also clear that women have recruited, promoted and appointed other women bringing them into the process.”

The ingredients and the recipe for New Hampshire's gender parity legacy are clearly working—and observers on the national level are taking note.

Case in point: when asked what woman politician she admired (besides Hillary Clinton) in a recent Politico segment, Meghan McCain’s answer was New Hampshire’s Sen. Ayotte.

“She does what my dad used to do growing up. It’s a reverse—her husband stays at home in New Hampshire, while she goes to the Senate and works,” McCain said. “And it never even occurred to me that that was a possibility, as terrible as that is, And it’s like the first woman that I have ever talked to that I was like: This is real—this is feminism.”

Remaining Work to Do

Still, gender politics in New Hampshire are far from ideal. Last month, State Representative Steve Vaillancourt wrote a post on a blog called NH Insider. After warning readers that the material might “prove uncomfortable” in bold letters at the top, and providing the caveat “I don't plan to say anything really offensive here,” he compared the physical appearances of State Representative Marilinda Garcia and Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster, both vying for New Hampshire’s second Congressional district.

“Let's be honest.” Villaincourt wrote. “Does anyone not believe that Congressman Annie Kuster is as ugly as sin? And I hope I haven't offended sin.” Garcia, in contrast, is “one of the most attractive women on the political scene anywhere.”

Vaillancourt’s reasoning was based on “some polling data which went by too fast for me to write down,” and it was necessary to discuss because “if we stop to admit it, looks matter in politics.”

His comments, as well as his surprise when many responded with outrage, illustrate that, despite New Hampshire’s record as a gender parity leader, the state has a long way to go towards eliminating sexism in politics.

“Even in a state where there are a lot more women in office,” Bresnahan says, “they still face those really outdated stereotypes and sexist comments from opponents or from folks in the media.”

How then, can New Hampshire continue to encourage gender parity amidst attitudes like Villaincourt’s?

The first item of business, Bresnahan says, should be for female politicians to continue to call out and address such sexist commentaries: “It is essential that for women in office they continue to, as Carol Shea-Porter says: Name it, change it, and shame it.”

Vilardi suggests that continuing the use of multi-member districts and instituting other fair voting methods that increase women’s chances for running and winning elected offices would go a long way as well, and emphasizes the importance of having built in accountability for these systems: “We need the parties, we need entities encouraging women to run.”

Most importantly, people should not “settle” because the 2012 elections were so historic, Bresnahan says.

“If this series of elections that they continue to have equal representation at the different levels of states,” she says, “that’s when you truly know they’re doing something special in New Hampshire. It shows itself to not be an outlier on a couple cycles.”

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