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January 20. 2013 10:13PM

New coalition of NH women working toward new ground

It's a new day for three organizations that have long promoted gender equality in New Hampshire, and they are stronger than ever since merging a year ago to form the New Hampshire Women's Initiative, according to the group's chair, Mary Johanna Brown.

It's also time to build on advances already made, while dodging some old land mines of negative, polarizing ideas that have sometimes dogged equality issues, said Brown, who owns Brown and Company Design and Big Brown Books Publishing in Portsmouth.

"The time has come for a new generation and a new audience to define and advocate for gender equality," Brown said. "Whether the conversation is in the boardroom or the bedroom, at the water cooler or in the State House."

The New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women, the Women's Lobby and Alliance, and the Women's Policy Institute have become one nonprofit organization, making the work more streamlined and efficient, Brown said.

"It just made a whole heck of lot of sense," Brown said. "These were all doing great work promoting gender equality and they all have same goal - to achieve gender equality for women and girls in New Hampshire."

When the Commission on the Status of Women was asked to sunset as a state entity because of budget constraints after advocating for women since 1969, various groups sat down to come up with a plan for the future. A nonprofit seemed like the way to go, Brown said, relying totally on donations. The merger was finalized a year ago, she said.

Two panels were formed. One is the Founding Mothers Panel, comprised of women from the three organizations. The other is a Gender Ambassador Panel of younger women.

"The Gender Ambassador Panel group wants to reframe the way we think about gender issues," Brown said.

Some describe themselves as feminists; others do not, she said.

In fact, during 30 listening sessions held across the state, Brown found some people support gender equality, but perceive terms such as "feminism'' and the "women's movement'' to be negative and even angry.

"There is room for all types of opinions and agendas," Brown said of the new organization.

One woman wanted to know whether she could participate because she held pro-life views on abortion.

Definitely, Brown told her, although many others have pro-choice views.

"I think we are creating the future of gender equality by engaging new audiences and sectors, and by broadening the way in which we advocate," Brown said.

To that end, NHWI is still listening. On the group's website, the public is invited to speak out on the blog "Here's what I think."

The group's priorities are equal pay, women in leadership in politics and corporations, and work-life balance, Brown said.

"Work-life balance is extremely important to men and women in contemporary terms," Brown said.

Because of a partnership with the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, NHWI publishes monthly infographics detailing facts about the status of women in New Hampshire.

Despite making great strides in political leadership with an all-female congressional delegation, the state still lags behind the nation in pay equity, women business owners and women serving on boards of directors, Brown said, although she is optimistic about more engagement from the business sector.

Fundraising has been going very well, with a $5,000 anonymous donation and another anonymous donation of $20,000, once the group matches it.

"We've just about met that goal," Brown said. "It's a rebirth, incredibly exciting, the young women and men engaging with us carrying the momentum forward."

The group has hosted some activities besides the 30 listening sessions. It screened the film "Miss Representation," that drew more than 220 people to The Music Hall in Portsmouth. Vermont's first female governor, Madeleine Kunin, spoke in Concord and Portsmouth.

Longtime Democratic activist Mary Rauh is NHWI's vice chair and serves on its board of directors as a representative of the Founding Mothers.

What Brown has done is bring together people who were involved in the old organizations as well as new leaders, new energy, and new ideas to the organization, Rauh said.

"The structure works well with a number of us from the old groups," Rauh said. "It's a wonderful way for the new organization to always have the voice and support of the older leaders, but to move ahead with new, dynamic young women coming on board to do the work of the new organization." Rauh said another major concerns voiced during listening sessions was the lack of affordable day care.

"It's very stressful for women with young kids and jobs that don't pay well," Rauh said.

Brown asks some provocative questions:

Why are women in New Hampshire being paid just 72 cents for every dollar that men earn?

Why is the number of women business owners in our state lower than the national average?

What will the Granite State's first-in-the-nation, all-women congressional delegation mean for New Hampshire and the nation?

She believes supporting NHWI is a good way to start finding the answers to those questions.

"The New Hampshire Women's Initiative represents a rebirth of not only how we define gender equality but how we will advocate for it," Brown said. "We know that women's issues are not just women's issues. They are everyone's issues."

nwest@unionleader.com

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