LEBANON, N.H. (WOMENSENEWS)–New Hampshire’s state Senate will carve history for the Granite State in January when the legislative body convenes with women in 13 of the 24 seats forming the country’s first female majority.
Women will also factor in key positions of leadership: the Senate is presided over by its president, Sylvia Larson, and president pro-tem, Maggie Hassan, while Martha Fuller Clark continues her role as majority whip.
"We are setting a great example for young women: that they can get involved and run for office," says Sharon Carson, a newly elected Republican senator who formerly served as state representative from Londonderry and works as an adjunct professor at Nashua Community College.
Elizabeth Ossoff, research coordinator for the Center for the Study of American Democracy and Citizenship at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, says the gender milestone has been coming closer for years. After the last election in 2006, women comprised 30.4 percent of the combined Senate and House. When the new session convenes in January, that number will increase to 37.7 percent.
"This is an independent minded place which has allowed women–and encouraged women–to become involved in the state Legislature for decades," Ossof says.
Public reaction in New Hampshire has been low-key and matter of fact. News articles have noted the development but no media hoopla has been evident and, when the new session starts, some legislators have said it will be business as usual.
"It wasn’t like it was intentional," says Donna Sytek, former speaker of the state House and former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "Women have gradually risen to the top here because they are capable and they do their homework."
Outside the state, those who track the progress of women in elected positions are elated, although also not surprised by New Hampshire’s new Senate majority. Women also lead both legislative chambers, with Larsen presiding in the Senate and Terie Norelli as speak of the House.
"I think it’s very exciting," says Katie Ziegler, a policy specialist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. "But it’s not surprising; New Hampshire has consistently ranked high in terms of the percentage of women in its Legislature. But they are the only state now to have two female officers. That’s impressive."
Two major explanations for women’s newfound majority are the state’s high number of legislators and their low–practically nonexistent–pay.
New Hampshire’s Legislature has 424 members: 400 in the House and 24 in the Senate, making it the largest legislature in the United States and the fourth-largest English-speaking governing body in the world.
The New Hampshire General Court–as the state Legislature has called itself since its inception in 1784–is in session for six months, between January and June, and elected officials are paid only $100 per year, plus gas mileage, to serve.
Fewer Women Are Pro Pols
This is a stark contrast to many other state legislatures, most of which pay their representatives annual salaries commensurate with a full-time job. So-called professional legislatures include California, where elected officials are paid $110,880 for a nine-month session, or Michigan, where representatives are paid $79,650 and receive $12,000 allowances for annual expenditures.
States such as New Hampshire and New Mexico, whose elected officials receive no compensation, tend to have a higher percentage of female representatives, says Ziegler, because the sessions are less time-consuming and the expectations and compensation are such that the people who serve think of themselves as public servants rather than professional politicians.
"Historically, a woman might just as easily have served in the state Legislature as the PTA," says Sytek, the New Hampshire Republican.
Sytek retired from the Legislature in 2000 after serving 23 years. When she was first elected in 1977, there were women already chairing committees who wielded power and authority while other, more left-leaning legislatures such as that of neighboring Massachusetts remained dominated by men. "In New Hampshire, competence rises to the top," she says. "It’s a meritocracy; if you have a good idea, you don’t have to wait your turn."
In New Hampshire, legislators are often retirees, stay-at-home mothers, small business owners and people with part-time, flexible hours that allow them to serve. Not surprisingly, this has led to greater participation by women. But changes in the economy and the work force during the past decade have also brought in a new breed.
"The new women running for office aren’t doing this as volunteer work in the traditional sense," she says. "We’re seeing a lot of college faculty, women with their own law practices and others who are bringing their professional expertise to the job."
‘Women’s Issues’ Not Dominant
Few of the women who were elected this year ran on platforms that were heavy in women-friendly planks such as improved education funding, health care subsidies or equal pay legislation.
"No one wants to be the ‘Woman Legislator,’" says Debbie Walsh, director for the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. "But no matter what their politics, they will be looking through these issues with the lens of being a woman. Just having them in the room brings sensitivity and life experience to the issues. "
"Having a female majority in a senate may result in more sensitivity to women’s issues, such as work opportunity or discrimination," says Sally Davis, director of legislative efforts for the New Hampshire League of Women Voters, based in Concord. "But realistic attempts to balance the budget and prioritize probably don’t depend on gender. Losing Liz Hager hurts, but losing Jay Phinizy does, too."
Hager, a moderate, pro-choice Republican, was defeated in her House primary re-election bid by a more conservative candidate. Phinizy, a liberal Democrat, lost his House seat in the general election to a Republican.
Until November, women comprised one-third of the state Senate in neighboring Vermont, making it the current leader. It will lose that title to New Hampshire in January, although Vermont will continue to outrank New Hampshire–just barely–in terms of the overall percentage of women serving in the Legislature: Vermont will have 37.8 percent while New Hampshire’s figure will stand at 37.7 percent. The Colorado Legislature will remain 38 percent female, the highest in the country, but it does not have a female majority in either the House or the Senate.
Other states with a high portion of female legislators are Arizona, Minnesota, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon and Maine.
Walsh attributes that to states’ populist–as opposed to liberal–heritage, where citizen legislatures encouraged women to participate in elective office.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are states, mostly in the South, that lag behind.
After the defeat earlier this month of five female candidates for the state Legislature, South Carolina will have no female representatives when its state Senate convenes in January. It will be the first time since 1979 that its state Senate has had no women in office.
Jane Costello is a freelance writer who lives and votes in New Hampshire.