New Hampshire Senate Makes History

Becomes first state Senate with more ladies than gentleman.

December 6, 2008, 3:11 PM

Dec. 7, 2008— -- The New Hampshire state Senate is an institution steeped in history. It meets in the same chamber it has used since 1819. The 24 members sit at long wooden desks with visitors watching from above in an austere colonial gallery.

It is also a place that does things a little differently. Senators are paid just $100 a year, plus gas money. It's basically a volunteer job.

And this week, at the official swearing-in ceremony for the senators elected on Nov. 4, New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to have a legislature with a female majority.

That's right. There are more ladies than gentlemen.

Of the 24 members of the New Hampshire Senate, 13 are now women. All but two are Democrats.

"As the first-in-the-nation primary state, we are always glad to lead the way," state Senate President Sylvia Larsen said from her perch at the front of the room last Thursday.

"Behind every good man is a good woman. In front of every good man is a woman," joked state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro when he stood to make remarks.

"When voters went to the polls last month, they weren't looking to create the first female majority Senate," Larsen said. "They were picking from a very talented slate of candidates, many of which happen to be women."

"New Hampshire voters are very independent and informed and they are very involved in the process," state Sen. Kathy Sgambati said. "So I believe their votes are not based on gender but knowing the people who know the issues."

But why is New Hampshire first to cross this marker of a female majority? Some of it is cultural, says political scientist Dante Scala of the University of New Hampshire.

"We saw female candidates break the glass ceiling in New Hampshire some time ago," Scala said. "So voters here were used to the idea of having women in charge. And that isn't the case across the 50 states."

New Hampshire women have been holding office in the Granite State since just after 1921, when women won the right to vote. That's when the first two women were elected to the state House of Representatives. Nine years later, in 1930, the state elected the first female senator. And the numbers have grown steadily since.

"Electing women is kind of contagious," state Sen. Maggie Hassan said. "Once a group gets the hang of it, women do better and better."

In fact, women are so much a part of the political fabric in New Hampshire that the women senators are a bit blasé about their new status.

"It's almost more of a national story than it is a state story. For the state, it's, 'What's the big deal?'" said state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark.

Still, Fuller Clark said it is "terrific" that this day has come.

Larsen said things have changed for women in the years she's held office.

"Back when I ran for this office 14 years ago, my opponent said, 'Oh Sylvia. She's a nice woman,'" she said. "But he implied she can't really do the job. So there has been progress."

Another factor in New Hampshire is access to political positions -- for men and women.

"Anybody can play politics in New Hampshire," Scala said. "There are so many points of entry into politics."

For a small state, it has an enormous legislature. The 400 members of its House each represent just about 2,000 constituents. People tend to know their representatives by name.

Many senators start out in local office or as state representatives. And even if they jump right to the state senate, anyone can make a bid for a job that pays $100 a year.

"It's very much a citizen legislature, which means, again, there's not a lot of value to incumbency," Scala said. "It's not like people are making a profession out of politics here. So that means, again, that you can have citizens, including female citizens, [that] have a way into politics, whereas in other states where it's more [a] professional legislature people hold on to those seats like grim death."

State Sen. Peggy Gilmour took a chance and ran for the state senate this year. She had never held any public office before.

"The other day, I got a letter in the mail addressed to the honorable and Mr. Peg Gilmore, and when I showed it to my 13-year-old granddaughter she said, 'Oh that's way cool!'"

Gilmour has run a hospice center and will continue to juggle her health care work with her new job as senator.

That's what most of the women (and men) of the New Hampshire state Senate do. They work jobs as varied as lawyers, professors, nurses and financial planners, while also putting in about 40 hours a week from January to June at the state Senate.

All 13 of the female senators are also mothers.

Years ago, on one particularly grueling day, Larsen remembers having to quietly ask the then-president of the state senate if they could take a recess so she could pick her daughter up from piano lessons.

All of the women said they didn't make an issue of their gender during their campaigns.

"Absolutely not. I don't think any of us did," said state Sen. Jackie Cilley.

They conceded they may run the place a little differently than a male majority would, but it isn't their intention to focus on a slew of "women's issues."

The biggest issue facing the Senate when it returns to work in January is a looming budget mess.

And one day, members said, they hope no one will notice whether the majority is male or female.

"While it's festive to celebrate this historic occasion, true equality will come when electing women or people of color is no longer a news story," Larsen said.

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