Elle: Thanks to Maggie Hassan, Little Girls in New Hampshire Think Only Women Can Be Governors
by Mattie Kahn
The statistics aren't good. According to recent estimates, women make up just under 20 percent of Congress and less than 25 percent of all state legislatures. Only six of our nation's governors are women. But we are 51 percent of the population. And the research shows that when women participate in government, we make it run better, more collaboratively. Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But within weeks of the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced they plan to run. And we want them to win. So we're giving them a weekly example of a woman who has run and won. The point: You can, too.
Maggie Hassan was elected to represent New Hampshire in the United States Senate in 2016. She has served three terms in the New Hampshire State Senate and served as Governor of New Hampshire from 2013 to 2017—becoming only the second woman ever to hold that office after Jeanne Shaheen, with whom she now serves in the Senate. Shaheen and Hassan are the only two women in United States history to have been elected both governor and senator.
My family was always very politically aware and engaged, but it never really occurred to me that running for office was something I wanted to do. My own interest in political service—that came later. The real change came about when my husband Tom and I had our first child—our son, Ben, who today is 29 and quite wonderful, if I do say so myself. Shortly after Ben was born, we learned that he would have very severe and pervasive physical disabilities and that focused me on, first of all, keeping my family together and then making sure Ben had all the opportunities we all want our kids to have. He grew older, and I began to advocate for his full inclusion in school. I found myself at our state capitol, speaking up for families like ours and individuals with disabilities.
I should say that I'm very blessed to have Jeanne Shaheen [now the Senior Senator from New Hampshire; previously the Governor of New Hampshire] as a friend and as a mentor. She was the one who appointed me to my very first public office, which was an education finance commission, back in the late '90s. She wanted to make sure that there was good parent representation on the commission and because I had one child with disabilities and one child without, she thought I'd be a good person to represent voices of children in our state. We have known each other a long time, and Jeanne taught me a lot about how to not only reach out to our constituents, but to ask them the right questions and then to spend a lot of time just listening. She's just been a great role model that way and she's demonstrated the kind of tenacity and perseverance that it takes to do this job well. Her example is one I try to follow.
Eventually, one thing led to the next, and it really wasn't until others encouraged me to run for office when a state Senate seat became open that I ever really considered it. Of course, I do credit the people who asked me to run with helping me see a pathway forward for myself in politics, but I also credit my husband, Tom, because when I called him to say that people were asking me to do this, I listed all the reasons from the age of our children to our sons medical needs to Tom's busy career, as well as my own law practice. I listed all the reasons why I couldn't do it, and it was my husband who said, "You'd be really good at it, and we'll make it work."
On her first race
That first race showed me how willing the people of my state—and that first state Senate district, especially—were to talk to me and tell me about their lives and tell me how they hoped I could help the, if I were to be successful. That process is unbelievably important and invigorating and something to treasure. I lost that race. In 2002, when I decided to run, we had just had a redistricting battle in New Hampshire, so all of our races kind of started late. Also, I hadn't done this before and I was going up against an incumbent. And by the way, I know him well, and we have a lot of respect for each other. In 2004, though, I just felt that if the people in our district knew his real record, they would understand that he wasn't a good match for them. He was very, very conservative on a number of issues, including what we all think of as social issues. I was convinced that if people understood the distinction between him and me, not only on social issues, but on health insurance and health care as well, I would be able to win the race and that turned out to be the case.
On what we owe Americans with disabilities
[Last month], we celebrated the 27th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and several of the senators and I were talking with people who experienced disabilities about this intersection of celebrating the anniversary of that very important law—a true civil rights law—that has helped us move forward as a country...and the debate around the Republican-led Senate [health care] bills.
I think a lot about what the progress we made around disability issues represents in terms of our national vision and mission, but also I think about the fact that we haven't gotten to where we need to be in terms of fully including people who experience disabilities. It's so important that they have spoken up and talked about their own lives, their own experiences, the importance of having certain kinds of health care, which allow them to fully participate in the civic and economic life of our country.
Their advocacy is reminding people that we're talking about civil rights of all Americans here. If you don't have access to health care and you aren't healthy, you can't reach your full potential and contribute at the level that we all should expect of each other as American citizens. That's really what this debate about health care is about. We have a democracy that was founded on the notion that every single person counts. Our founders didn't count everybody at first, but they were confident that every generation of Americans would make progress towards that ideal. And our progress around including people with disabilities has been substantial. Had my son been born a couple of generations earlier, we would have been pressured to put him in an institution. Instead, [he was] educated in our community; he made friends; he had a chance to learn and get his a high school diploma. He's included in our community today. That's really reflective of the kind of progress our founders expected us to make. But what the activists are telling us now is we still have a long way to go and that's true.
On women in politics
The issue of women in leadership positions—it's not just in elected office; it's throughout our culture and society. Generally, I've been blessed to live in a state and lead in a state that has a strong tradition of women in leadership. We have a very large state legislature, which has significant women represented in its ranks. We've had women senate presidents; we've had women governors. And I think as a result, we have a real acceptance of women in these roles. Of course, from time to time, you realize that people are getting used to something new. But what's more common is that you get reminded that, in New Hampshire, having a woman in leadership is not really seen as unusual anymore.
When I was still governor, I called a colleague of mine who was in the state Senate at the time. He didn't answer, and I left a message. When he called me back later, he said he'd been driving and had his two daughters in the car. They were maybe eight and 11, and they asked him—because they saw it was my name on his cellphone screen—"Are you going to return the Governor's call?" And he said, "Yes." And at some point, one of them asked him, "Dad, did you ever think about running for governor?" And he said, "Well, some people have talked to me about it. What are your thoughts?" And one of his daughters said, "No." And he said, "Why?" And she said, "Well, you can't. You aren't a girl."
The fact is role models matter. It really matters to people to see women in leadership, and that's one of the ways that we can break through some of the barriers that still exist—just simply by being there.