In New Hampshire, a Retail Political Culture That's Great for Women

Person-to-person contact has helped female candidates sweep the state's elections this season.

New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, campaigns with Mitt Romney at a July 4th parade in Wolfeboro. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

New Hampshire, long known as the first-presidential-primary-in-the-nation state, scored another political first earlier this week: it has elected women to all of its top public offices. It's not an accident that come January 2013, women will be installed in New Hampshire's U.S. Senate seats, both U.S. House seats, and the gubernatorial mansion. As anyone who has seen clips of presidential hopefuls chatting up voters in Concord during the presidential primary can vouch, elections there are waged mostly through person-to-person contact. And as it turns out, retail politics play to women's strengths.

That's because, historically at least, the women who launched political careers were often already active in their communities. As Debbie Walsh, head of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, puts it, "women have often run to fix something." The incoming New Hampshire governor, Maggie Hassan, for example, got involved in public life as an advocate for her child with special needs. One of the re-elected congressional representatives, Carol Shea-Porter, was a social worker and community activist before she first ran for the House in 2006. The networks these women built up in PTA and town-hall meetings were launching pads to a political life.

That is a particularly useful background to have in New Hampshire because serving in public office there can be tantamount to volunteer work. The New Hampshire state legislature is the largest in the country -- in fact, it's the third largest in the world, after the U.S. Congress and British Parliament. Each member represents roughly 3,000 residents, a representative-to-voter ratio that ensures elections are largely won through meeting and personally persuading individual voters. The pay is just $100 a term, so a lot of family breadwinners (who tend to be male) are dissuaded from running. And the legislature doesn't meet year-round, so it can be a good fit for mothers attempting to balance a political career with child rearing. As a result, women have long been well represented in that chamber and in the state senate, which in 2008 became the first to have a majority-female legislative body. (Men have since regained their edge.) It was in the state senate that Hassan and Senator Jeanne Shaheen began their political careers.

When women start occupying a critical mass of local political positions, it can help normalize the idea of women in more senior positions of power. "Once people get used to seeing women in local office," says Elizabeth Ossoff, director of research St. Anselm's New Hampshire Institute of Politics, "it's not so strange to see women moving into the U.S. Congress, governors seat, and the U.S. Senate." Female politicians who have established themselves in public life often serve as mentors to up-and-comers, much as men have guided their protégés over the years. Donna Sytek, the former New Hampshire speaker of the House, recalls how the first female state Senate president, Vesta Roy, not only encouraged her to run but also took care of her daughter while Sytek made her first campaign calls. And Hassan was first appointed to public office by then-Gov. Shaheen, who made her a citizen adviser for the Advisory Committee to the Adequacy in Education and Finance Commission.

Another part of the New Hampshire political landscape that benefits women is the fact that television time isn't all-important in such a small state, unlike places such as Illinois or New York. That means the monetary bar to running is lower. And because women have traditionally lagged men in fundraising, that can help level the playing field for them too.

Given all of the factors working in favor of the woman-volunteer-turned-politician, it's not surprising that the Granite State was the first to elect an all-woman slate to higher office. Over time, though, women are likely to achieve higher levels of political representation even in states that don't have the same tradition of retail politicking.

That's because the younger generation of women politicians have CVs more similar to their male counterparts' than the community-activist women who first won election to high office. The community-based path was common in the prior generation of female politicians: Madeleine Kunin became Vermont's first female governor in 1984 after commencing her political career by campaigning for sidewalks in her neighborhood; former Oregon governor Barbara Roberts entered public life initially to advocate for better public school options for her autistic son. Of the New Hampshire group, Shaheen, Shea-Porter, and Hassan all put time in behind the scenes and as activists before becoming elected office holders.

The youngest of the New Hampshire female politicians, U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, 44, took an alternative route to higher office, however. She worked her way up through the ranks as a prosecutor before being appointed state attorney general. That linear path is more traditionally associated with male politicians. But it's becoming increasingly common with women, too. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm also served as a prosecutor before becoming state AG. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) worked at a corporate law firm and was a prodigious fundraiser before she was elected to the U.S. House. House Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) first won election to the state house when she was just 26.

It's not an accident that these are the women who are talked about as potential national candidates (with the exception of Granholm, who is ineligible because she was born in Canada). Getting in the political game earlier helps expand their opportunities, and they've benefited from the glass-breaking of the prior generation. If one of the younger crew does indeed win election on a national ticket, the path the blazed for them by the activists-turned-public-servants will have played a vital role in their rise.