Women take majority in N.H. State Senate

| 11/12/08 4:08am

In a campaign year that broke long-standing racial and gender barriers, one national milestone has slipped quietly under the radar -- following last week's election, women will make up the majority of the New Hampshire State Senate, marking the first time in American history that women outnumber men in a state legislative body.

Women will now hold 13 of the 24 seats in Concord, up from 10 before the election. In contrast, there are only 17 women in the 100-member U.S. Senate, and women fill just 74 of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, record highs for both legislative bodies.

"The fact that we are the first majority-female state senate in history is a milestone, but in New Hampshire it just feels like the next step," Sen. Kathleen Sgambati, D-Tilton, who won re-election, said. "Women were elected not because they were women, but because they brought qualities that people supported."

She added that she did not think that sexism or gender biases have played more than a marginal role in her campaigns.

Both Sgambati and government professor Linda Fowler said that, while the state senate's female majority may be a milestone for the country, it is not a surprising turn of events given the prominence that women have held in New Hampshire's state and local politics for years.

Sgambati pointed to the leadership of state Rep. Terie Norelli D-Portsmouth, as House speaker and state Sen. Sylvia Larsen D-Concord, as Senate president, as evidence of the importance that female politicians have in the state legislatures.

Another local female politician, Lebanon Mayor Karen Liot Hill '00, agreed that sexism is not overtly present in New Hampshire politics.

"I think that in New Hampshire and New England in general, we're very pragmatic," Liot Hill said. "People are judged based on who they are, what they do, what their track record has been. It just happened that the best candidates this time around happened to be a majority of female senators."

Liot Hill said she does believe that sexism is more prevalent in national politics, and criticized some of the attention paid to the candidacies of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. and Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"Throughout the campaigns and media coverage, there were some pretty unfortunate things that happened and were said," Liot Hill said, "I think the media learned a lot after covering Senator Clinton's campaign."

Liot Hill added that she believes Palin is being used as a scapegoat for Senator John McCain's failed presidential campaign.

Courtney Merrill '09, the vice president of the New Hampshire College Democrats, agreed that while sexism has not been a significant factor in her political experiences, she has seen the effects of gender bias on female candidates.

"I think there's definitely a way in which female politicians are seen to be assertive and get labeled as domineering," Merrill said. "I made calls for [former N.H. Governor, now Senator-elect] Jeanne Shaheen, and people would often use biased terms when they referred to her."

Fowler explained that New Hampshire's political climate might be more conducive to female politicians than that of other states, or the national stage.

"N.H. has what is called an 'amateur' legislature, which means that the lawmakers are part-time, poorly paid, with little staff support," Fowler wrote in an e-mail to the Dartmouth. "The jobs are not as desirable as those in say, New York, New Jersey or Massachusetts, so the competition for them is less,"

She added, however, that the recent successes of Shaheen, U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter D-N.H., and N.H. Attorney General Kelly Ayotte indicate that having women in prominent local positions can prompt greater gender equality on both state and national levels. Shaheen, Shea-Porter and Ayotte are the first New Hampshire women to hold their respective positions.