In a country where women’s representation in Congress hovers below 20 percent, how did New Hampshire come to be ruled by women? Once its new representatives are sworn in tomorrow, the state will be led by two female congresswomen, two female senators, one female governor, a female speaker of the State House, and a female chief justice. Yesterday, the New York Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye dropped a New Hampshire state civics lesson that hints at why female politicians may have advanced so impressively there: New Hampshire has more state legislators than any other state, and they’re all paid next to nothing.
Though New Hampshire is small, its political pipeline is wide. Four hundred representatives serve in its State House—it’s bigger than any other state legislature, and rivals the U.S. House of Representatives in size. That means that the barrier for entry is lower, and women have a better chance of snagging a seat. Once they are elected to office, they’re barely compensated. State legislators in New Hampshire are paid $100 a year flat. (Meanwhile, Pennsylvania reps are living well at a salary of $82,026 a year.) Other states offer lowly salaries for their legislators, too, but few rival New Hampshire’s paltry sum. Most at least forgive expenses (Alabama, for example, pays its legislators just $10 a day, but allows them $4,308 per month in expenses). New Hampshire doesn’t.
What does it mean that the first state ruled by women is also the state where local politicians are valued the least? Seelye notes that the state “has a long history of volunteerism,” and serving as a local rep is so low-paying that it “amounts to an act of volunteerism.” Maybe nonwealthy men were unable or unwilling to seek office. Maybe women were more easily accepted into a version of public office that was seen as a public service as opposed to a high-status, high-paid political gig. After all, volunteering is a historically feminine realm, where women have been able to find meaningful unpaid work while their husbands followed a traditional career track. For whatever reason, women were well-represented in the New Hampshire state legislature as early as 1975—since that year, the number of women in the House hasn’t dipped below 100.
Maggie Hassan, who will be sworn in as the state’s new governor tomorrow, is one woman who came up through the state’s legislative system. “There are lots of opportunities for women to pitch in, prove their competence and learn a lot about governing and the political process,” she told the Times of her state. “We’ve had a very deep bench of women.” Not all of Hassan’s peers originated in the State House, but the body’s early acceptance of women may have helped build a formidable female network statewide—one that’s finally paying off.