Remarkable Women 2018: Persistence

Fearless women like Marilla Ricker fought the status quo and launched women to the heights of the political and legal worlds in New Hampshire.



Marilla Ricker's NH Statehouse portrait

“I’m running for Governor in order to get people in the habit of thinking of women as Governors... People have to think about a thing for several centuries before they can get acclimated to the idea. I want to start the ball a’rolling.” — Marilla Ricker, announcing a run for governor in 1910

When you walk the halls of the NH Statehouse, you’re surrounded by row upon row of impressive, gilt-framed portraits. Of the 200 or so, almost all are men. Just eight are women. Marilla Ricker, who ran for governor before women even had the vote, is one of them.

Learn more about Ricker, who was the first woman admitted to the bar in New Hampshire.

It is a tableau that tells the story of the struggle for women’s rights, for a place in politics, in governing, during the past two centuries in New Hampshire. But it only goes so far.

What you don’t see is the fight against those who believed that women serving in office would mean they might neglect life at home and, as one man long ago put it, “burn the biscuits.” More importantly, they believed women weren’t capable of handling the weighty matters of civic life.

Today there are still skirmishes in the fight — one of them, ironically, about women’s portraits on the Statehouse walls, either not hanging them or placing a potted plant in front of one that does hang — but there’s little doubt that women have succeeded beyond all expectation.

More than 200 portraits of people important in NH history hang in the halls of the Statehouse. Only eight are of women.

Stand beneath the portrait of, say, the gray-bearded Onslow Stearns, who was governor just as the suffrage movement was picking up steam in 1869, and imagine what he would think of this: a woman executive councilor, a woman house speaker, a woman senate president, a woman governor, a woman attorney general, a woman supreme court chief justice, a woman house speaker, senate president and governor at the same time, a majority woman state senate, and an entire congressional delegation of women.

All of that has happened in the last 40 years — it didn’t take anywhere near the “several centuries” that Marilla Ricker feared it would.

In fact, in 2012, the advance of women to the top ranks of New Hampshire government was so remarkable it gained national attention. Headlines were declaring “women rule,” “pink power” and “no boys’ club here.”

The deluge of coverage came because, that year, New Hampshire became the first in history — US history — to have an all-woman congressional delegation.

In the fall elections, Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter — who was the first woman to be elected to national office from New Hampshire, in 2006 — filled the state’s two House seats that had been held by men, with Shea-Porter regaining the seat she had previously held. They joined sitting senators Jeanne Shaheen — who had been the state’s first woman governor and first woman US Senator, and first woman in US history to be elected both governor and senator — and Kelly Ayotte — who had been the state’s first woman attorney general and first woman Republican senator.

To understand what a political triumph that was, note that at the time 16 states, including progressive New Jersey, had no women in Congress. Four states had never elected a woman to either the House or the Senate.

Add to that, another woman, Maggie Hassan, had been elected governor. Four years later, she would join the congressional delegation as senator. With Shea-Porter being elected again after a hiatus of two years, that produced another first in US history — an all-woman, all-Democratic delegation.

The women, proud to a person of the historic achievement, believe it’s not only good for women, it’s good for the country.

Sen. Shaheen, dean of the delegation, says, “Women’s experiences are different than men’s — not better, but different. Having women in positions of power to make decisions and be part of the conversation brings an absolutely necessary perspective to the table that helps represent all of society, not just half.”

Sen. Hassan agrees: “We know that, when there are more perspectives represented and when there are more women at the table, we make better decisions. … We need the rest of the country to follow New Hampshire’s strong example.”

“Research shows us what we have always known — men and women often have different perspectives and approaches,” says Rep. Shea-Porter. “That’s why we need ... to make sure all good ideas are heard and all good skills are used.”

Women bring a collaborative perspective, says former senator Kelly Ayotte, part of the first glass-ceiling-shattering delegation. “That is important,” she says, “if we are going to work across party lines and help end the gridlock.”

And, because women are 51 percent of the population, Rep. Kuster says, “We can’t truly call ourselves a representative democracy if the people in government aren’t an accurate representation of our country’s diversity.”

After the first sweep of major offices happened back in 2012, all five women were celebrated at a forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. Neil Levesque, the executive director, says it was one of the most popular events the Institute has had. “A lot of women brought their daughters to see it,” he says. “It was hard not to be proud.”

The first all-woman congressional delegation in US history was celebrated at the NH Institute of Politics in 2012. L to R: Gov. Maggie Hassan, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen Courtesy of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Why did it happen? What is it about New Hampshire that engendered those “firsts”? Those are questions that everyone, including Levesque, seems to have a ready answer for: It’s the size of the Legislature, one of the largest in the world.

“The 400-member House is designed to be very close to the people,” Levesque says. “Each legislator has few constituents.” Just 3,000 or so, in fact. That closeness and the sheer number of seats create many opportunities for women who are serving in local offices or on boards to take the next step to the Legislature.

Another path forward — working for candidates in NH’s first-in-the-nation primary. “Presidential primaries definitely play a role in people getting their feet wet in politics,” says Levesque. “If they like it, they go further and run for political office.”

The fact that a lot of the work done by women on the political periphery is volunteer helps too. It makes for an easier transition to the Legislature, which is essentially volunteer. The pay is $100 a year and mileage.

Another factor that favors women — it’s not a full-time job as it is in some other states. That allows women to more easily participate while they’re raising a family.

In 1984, Arnie Arnesen, just elected as state representative, broke new legislative ground by taking her newborn baby to the Statehouse. “I gave birth about a week before the election,” she says. “We, the baby and I, were sworn in together, and I breastfed on the floor of the House for the first year.” The in-House breastfeeding made news across the country.

“I felt like, by other women seeing me with a baby as a legislator, it was a welcome mat, that it was OK. It made an impression,” she says.

But, as has happened to other women, Arnesen saw another side of having a young family while pursuing a legislative career. When she became the state’s first woman major party nominee for governor in 1992, she was asked by a reporter, a woman reporter, “What about your children?”

It’s not a question that likely would be asked of a man, but it was, and sometimes still is, asked of women.   

If that mindset is becoming less of an obstacle, there are still more to hurdle. Self-doubt is one. Rep. Kuster points to a line that’s often repeated: “When you ask a man to run for office, his first question is, ‘When do I start?’ If you ask a woman to run for office, her first question is, ‘Really? Why me?’ So many women downplay their accomplishments, their intelligence and their abilities, and so we have to instill confidence in women at an early age.”

Sen. Shaheen recounts a story about lessons learned when she was defeated in a run for Senate for 2002, after serving three terms as governor. “It was a difficult time, especially for women — the election was in the shadow of September 11th and national security had never been a bigger issue,” she says. “It was challenging to be a woman and engage on that issue because a lot of people didn’t think it was a topic that women could handle. I knew that if I decided to run for office again, I’d have to make national security a priority and show Granite Staters — and the American public — that women are just as qualified to handle these issues as men.”

She ran again in 2008 and won. Today she serves on both the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services committees.

No doubt role models like that — and time — will normalize the role of women in politics. Generations coming up will think nothing of it, the discrimination washed away by years of women performing in politics as well as — perhaps better than — men.

In the meantime, women with political expertise will continue to mentor those moving up through the ranks. “Role models and mentoring are incredibly important,” Sen. Hassan says. “As more women serve in leadership positions, young girls in the state have more role models to look up to and are better able to envision themselves serving in similar positions one day.”

Many pioneering women have acted as mentors in New Hampshire, but cited most often are Jeanne Shaheen; the late Susan McLane, the mother of Rep. Kuster, who served in both the NH House and Senate, and made a run for Congress in 1980; the first woman executive councilor Dudley Dudley and the first woman house speaker Donna Sytek.

But it’s not just women who have acted as mentors and advocates. Over the years, New Hampshire men have too, notably US Sen. Henry Blair in 1887. That was the year he proposed an amendment to the Constitution to extend the right of suffrage to women. He said, in part: “If it be true that all just government is founded upon the consent of the governed, then the government of woman by man, without her consent given in a sovereign capacity, even if that government be wise and just in itself, is a violation of natural right and an enforcement of servitude against her on the part of man.”

But not many were convinced by that logic, including Sen. George Vest of Missouri: “I would not, and I say it deliberately, degrade woman by giving her the right of suffrage. I mean the word in its full signification, because I believe that woman as she is today, the queen of the home and of hearts, is above the political collisions of this world, and should always be kept above them.”

The amendment was voted down, as were all other attempts to grant women the vote, until 1920, three decades later. (A little-known fact: New Hampshire women weren’t officially denied the vote until 1784, when a new state Constitution was approved. Unlike the earlier one from 1776, it explicitly specifies gender with regard to voting rights. Also little-known: In 1872, women were granted the right to serve on local school committees, children being the realm of women, but they couldn’t vote to elect school committee members. Six years later, after much political pressure, the Legislature granted women the right to vote in those elections, but with strict qualifications, most likely the owning of property.)

Long before — and after — Sen. Blair’s failed effort to extend suffrage, Marilla Ricker tried to vote in her hometown of Dover. She demanded a ballot, unsuccessfully, in 1870, and continued to do so, unsuccessfully, for the next 50 years. In 1910, at age 70, she tried to run for governor, but her filing papers were refused.

“That’s the state’s first example of a woman trying to run for office,” says Liz Tentarelli, president of the League of Women Voters, which is a direct descendant of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. “Marilla was denied because she wasn’t a registered voter. Still, she got six votes.” Six votes that came from supportive men.

Many New Hampshire women were active in the suffrage movement, working for decades to get the right to vote. In 1917, suffragists marched in New York City.

Ricker was one of many suffrage leaders in the state who fought for decades for the right to vote. Their cause was helped along, Tentarelli says, by the role women played in WWI: “So many women were filling men’s jobs, donning uniforms, whether as nurses, streetcar conductors or military. A lot of minds were changed by that.”

In November 1920, a few months after the 19th amendment was ratified (New Hampshire was the 16th state to ratify) and just 10 days after the first election where women could vote, Ricker died. It’s not clear whether she had voted in that long-sought election. It’s likely that she was too ill to get to the polls.

But in that election, two women — Dr. Mary Louise Farnum of Boscawen and Jessie Doe of Rollinsford — won seats in the NH House. And, they did it on a write-in vote. Ratification had happened too late for them to file for office. News reports said women’s turnout was “large and enthusiastic throughout the state.” It would be another decade before a woman — Maude Ferguson of Bristol — was elected to the NH Senate.

“We all stand on the shoulders of these giants,” says Rep. Shea-Porter. “While these women were all individuals, what they shared was a sense of purpose, a desire to serve, a love for their country and a determination to make life better for others. These women, and all of the women who ran for any office, anywhere, were strong and determined, and they paved the way for the rest of us.”

Rep. Kuster calls Ricker and the many other trailblazing women “incredibly brave. They took a stand for something that was practically unheard of until the late 20th century: women running for and serving in public office. They knew what they were after — a greater voice for women in government — was more important than the challenges they faced. Their courage changed our country for the better.”

But, alas, there are still remnants of earlier times. A framed poem from the 1980s that hung on a Statehouse wall imagined what John Hale, a New Hampshire senator in Congress in “the days of yore,” would have thought of the late 20th century legislature. Part of it says: “They’ve changed so much on manner, speech and dress/They question, they bicker, they argue up a storm/I admire them all, especially the lovely lady legislators/In their mini-skirts and slacks/Gad, what forms!”

The poem was recently removed after the media caught wind of it. Two other issues were also recently resolved, again after creating a stir in the media. The potted plant that had been placed in front of the portrait of Jeanne Shaheen — no doubt an inspiration to schoolgirls and others touring the Statehouse — was removed. And the long-lingering portrait of the first woman executive councilor Dudley Dudley was finally approved for placement on the wall.

Also in recent months, the national “Me Too” discussion about sexual harassment filtered down to the Legislature. Media reports suggest there’s more work to be done despite the progress of women in state elective office.

But none of that dampens the optimism that there’s a seismic shift underway, or soon could be, for women in the political world. There are unprecedented numbers of women running for office in 2018, and that’s likely to happen again in 2020.

At this point, women comprise about 30 percent of the NH Legislature and about 20 percent of Congress. Sen. Hassan says, “Women make up 51 percent of the population; we should have — at least — 51 women senators. And, beyond Congress, I hope that more women continue to seek out leadership positions at all levels of government. While it’s great that there are many more women in leadership positions today than there were when I started off my career, we know that there is much more work to do.”

Looking ahead, Sen. Shaheen is encouraged by what she sees happening: “Women are saying ‘enough is enough and it’s time to get involved.’ I look forward to the day where we don’t have to talk about women’s issues being different because we will have that equal representation. I hope that we achieve gender parity, and it’s not an issue that my daughters or granddaughters will have to deal with in the way that I, and the women who came before, had to.”


A Different Path to Prominence

Not only was New Hampshire’s Marilla Ricker a fierce fighter for women’s rights in the world of politics, she also took on the legal establishment of the mid-1800s. Back then, law was strictly a profession for men. Ricker was having none of it.

In 1882, she passed the bar exam in Washington, DC, reportedly outranking the 18 men who took the exam with her. She practiced law there for many years, and was one of the first women to be admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court.

When she returned to New Hampshire in 1890, she became the first woman to apply for admission to the New Hampshire Bar. After being denied, she petitioned the NH Supreme Court for the right to practice law. All of the justices concurred, giving women the same rights as men.

“Without Marilla Ricker, I can’t say that I’d be here,” says Linda Dalianis, New Hampshire’s first woman Supreme Court justice and first woman chief justice. “She was brave and intrepid.”

Dalianis, appointed as justice in 2000 and chief justice in 2010, did not face the daunting obstacles that Ricker had in her legal career, but there were still obstacles. The main one — a woman being a judge in New Hampshire was, as Dalianis says, “unheard of” when she started out in the 1970s.

Even being an attorney was unusual for a woman. In 1977, statistics show that the NH Bar Association had only accepted 100 woman attorneys in the previous 60 years. In 2018, women comprise about 37 percent of all active attorneys. And woman judges are no longer uncommon.

“I don’t think my gender as a judge made any particular difference in doing the job. It did make a difference in the possibilities of women becoming judges after me,” she says. “Women in New Hampshire have participated and proven themselves. Once women prove themselves, the resistance wanes.”

One of those who have proven themselves is Kelly Ayotte, not just the first woman Republican US Senator and part of the first all-woman congressional delegation, but the state’s first woman attorney general.

When she first arrived at the Attorney General’s Office after being in private practice, she noted a phenomenon similar to that at the Statehouse. As she says, “I remember walking along the wall to the Attorney General’s office and looking at the pictures of every person who had served as attorney general who line that wall and thinking, why isn’t there a woman’s picture there?”

She says she knew that, working in a field dominated by men, she would have to “work even harder to show I was capable of doing the job.”

She became chief of the homicide prosecution unit, legal counsel to Gov. Craig Benson and deputy attorney general. In 2004, she was appointed attorney general, serving for five years.

“What I appreciated the most about breaking that glass ceiling in New Hampshire is that, if I was the first, I knew I would not be the last.”


Madam President?

OK, so women in New Hampshire are shattering all kinds of glass ceilings, scoring one political victory after the other. But what about the presidency? When will a woman be the Leader of the Free World?

“That’s the $54 million question,” says Dr. Elizabeth Ossoff, an expert in political behavior.

It’s one of the questions she’s been studying for years as professor and psychology department chair at St. Anselm College, and at the NH Institute of Politics. “I try to understand behaviors and motivations about why people make the choices they do when it comes to all things political,” she says.

Ossoff got a lot more data points in the last presidential election, the first between a man and a woman, and in the earlier election with a woman running for vice president.

“In an area like politics, which has been traditionally male-dominated, women are going to be more visible,” she says, “and also subject to evaluative criteria that don’t necessarily apply to men.”

A few noted during the campaigns — Sarah Palin’s attractiveness and spending on her wardrobe, and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and her voice that, to some, became “shrill” when she raised it.

Much of the evaluating that goes on with women is, Ossoff says, under the radar: “People say, ‘I don’t see gender.’ I say, ‘Of course you do.’ You can’t not see it. It is the most salient social cue.”

Once gender becomes part of the equation, unconscious expectations come into play, Ossoff says, expectations that are rooted in the traditional roles played by men and women: “People tend to be more comfortable with the paternalistic model, where a man is in charge.” That, she adds, is particularly true of the presidency, which is viewed differently than other elected offices.

Hillary Clinton not only had to deal with the fact her election would depart from the status quo, which can take both men and women out of their comfort zone, she also was following a significant change election where an African American became president. Ossoff says, “There were people who felt that we just had one monumental change and now we’re going to have another one?”

No doubt gender and race will become less of an issue as time goes on, but it may take a while. “You can’t think that, because Obama won one time, it’s over. It needs to happen a number of times before it becomes normal, not just an exception to the rule,” Ossoff says.

Even in New Hampshire, where a woman in high office is not an exception to the rule, Clinton won the state by just .3 of a point.

Nonetheless, Ossoff is somewhat hopeful, seeing the “Me Too” movement as a possible sign of change: “There’s some evidence that, if you can make people aware of their biases, specifically their implicit biases, the ones they’re not consciously recognizing, they may move away from them.”

But it’s not easy, she adds. “People don’t want to admit they’re been bigoted in this way because it’s a negative reflection on their sense of self.” And that, in turn, can set up resistance to changing; people want to protect their sense of self.

Another component of voter behavior that complicates matters — studies show that people tend to react to candidates with emotion rather than reason. Ossoff says MRI brain scans were done of people who are politically knowledgeable and people who are politically naïve. When they were shown information that ran counter to their ideological persuasions, the brain’s emotion centers in both groups were activated before the executive function kicked in to apply reason. “I think everybody responds on a very visceral level,” she says. “They have a kneejerk reaction to the person rather than what they stand for. In the last election, there were strong emotional reactions to both candidates.”     

So what’s a woman to do? Being well-versed on the issues goes without saying. But another part of the answer, it seems, is a Goldilocks kind of balance. The candidate for president should be attractive, but not too attractive. (“You don’t want her to be distracting in the traditional beauty queen sense.”) Not too old. (“That hurt Clinton.”) Not too young. (“You don’t want people to wonder why she isn’t home taking care of her children.”) Assertive, but not too assertive. (“What would people have thought if Clinton had told Trump to back off when he was looming over her in the debate?”)

Finding what is “just right” is difficult. As Ossoff says, “There are a lot of layers for people to unpack.”

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