How Can We Get More Women In Elected Office? Look to New Hampshire.

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.

Rebecca Hellmich November 4, 2014

New Hampshire's all-female congressional delegation. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.

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.”

Rebec­ca Hellmich is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions and advo­ca­cy fel­low at Fair­Vote. She grad­u­at­ed from Itha­ca Col­lege in May 2014 with a B.A. in jour­nal­ism. In sum­mer 2013, Rebec­ca interned with the media crit­i­cism orga­ni­za­tion, Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Report­ing, where she wrote sev­er­al blog posts as well as an arti­cle about the day jobs of news pun­dits for the mag­a­zine Extra!.
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