New Hampshire's all-female Congressional delegation honored at sold-out event in Manchester
MANCHESTER -- The slogan on the T-shirts for sale in the lobby said it all: "New Hampshire, where women rule."
The YWCA contingent selling the souvenirs was part of an overflow crowd at St. Anselm College on Friday, celebrating the state's all-female congressional delegation, and the fact that women now hold leadership positions in all three branches of state government - as governor-elect, Speaker of the House and chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
On hand for the occasion, hosted by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, were Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, newly elected U.S. representatives Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, and incumbent U.S. senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte.
In a conversation moderated by chamber president and CEO Robin Comstock, they touched on issues ranging from the likelihood of a woman President to the pressures of politics on family life. Comstock told the audience at the outset that people across the country viewed the New Hampshire election outcome as historic, and the panelists agreed.
"Pink is the new power color in New Hampshire," Kuster joked.
Shaheen reminded the crowd, however, that equality for women in many areas remains elusive. "Even though we've elected a number of women in New Hampshire to lead the state, the fact is doors are still not open for all women, and part of what we've got to do is make sure the doors are open for all women, for everybody, so people have the same access to opportunity in New Hampshire and the country."
Wage equality, affordable child care, domestic violence and the need to preserve a social safety net were recurring themes at the gathering.
"No matter what your opinion is on these issues, there are no longer women's issues, per se," Kuster said. "These are people issues."
She pointed out that 50,000 women in the state are the sole head of household. "There's no other money coming into those households, and 10,000 of those families are living in poverty," she said. "So if we could pay each woman a dollar for a dollar's work, instead of 73 cents, we could bring all those kids up."
Violence against women is taking a terrible toll, she said, calling it "an issue people would prefer not to know about; prefer not to talk about. We've got to address women's safety."
Shea-Porter warned that women would be particularly hard hit by reductions in Medicare or Social Security, since many more women than men retire without a pension or substantial savings. "They contributed so much," she said, "but they are not protected in old age because they did not get that big job, or that education. Those doors were closed."
Ayotte, whose children are 8 and 5, said women are still considered the primary caregivers, no matter their profession. "When I was campaigning I got a lot of questions about what's going to happen to your children," she said, "and actually I think those questions are there much more for women than they are for men. That's just the reality."
Much of the conversation focused on the role of women mentors, particularly the examples set by mothers, and the support of husbands and other family members that made political life possible for the five women. "We all struggle with work and family balance," Hassan said. "We all still think about the impact that service has on our families, what it's like for our kids."
All agreed that women are particularly important in politics at a time when the public is placing a premium on consensus building and demanding an end to gridlock.
Shaheen described how all female senators meet four times a year. "We have dinner together," she said. "What's said at that dinner stays at the dinner. But we joke a lot that if we were running things, we could deal with a lot of the problems more successfully because we have that relationship."
All five agreed that the country will see a woman President, perhaps in the near future. "Maybe in 2016 when Hillary (Clinton) runs," said Shaheen, to loud applause.
The size of the crowd and the mood of the audience reflected Kuster's observation that the 2012 election was "a real watershed moment" for women, with New Hampshire leading the way.
Young girls are growing up with expectations made possible by the female role models they now see around them, Ayotte said, describing how one daughter asked if she planned to run for President.
After dismissing the notion, Ayotte said, "Why do you ask?"
"I don't want you to run for President," the daughter replied. "I want to be the first woman President."