Renee Loth

The matriarchy up north

By Renee Loth
April 30, 2009
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WHAT'S THE MATTER with New Hampshire? The flinty, crusty, Union Leader-reading, Labatt's-sipping, seat belt-shunning state went on a bender of progressive policy actions last month, approving legislation that might put the Cambridge City Council to shame.

First, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to raise the state's gasoline tax by 15 cents over three years. Then the House approved a bill allowing the use of medical marijuana, by a vote of 234-138. Next, it voted to repeal the state's capital punishment statute. The House wrapped up March with a vote to legalize same-sex marriage, and the Senate followed suit yesterday.

In journalism, we sometimes say that three examples of something constitute a trend. But four actions that turn the liberal litmus test strip pink - this must be a movement!

Not to put too fine a point on it, the state's new Republican Party chairman, former governor John H. Sununu, called his state's legislative output "a San Francisco agenda."

Now, before anyone gets too excited thinking that New Hampshire is morphing into Vermont, let's remember that the four bills still need final approval, and that Governor John Lynch, a moderate Democrat, has said he opposes all of them.

Still, there's something in the air in New Hampshire. Until recently it was the only state in the country that did not provide free public kindergarten - and defiantly so. Now the state offers grants and other incentives to its local school districts to provide kindergarten classes, and only a tiny handful are still resisting. There's even a mandatory seat-belt law under serious consideration, in a state where the God-given right to bash one's own skull in has been long revered.

What could be causing this unprecedented turn in Granite State politics? Here's one idea: women.

Since January, the New Hampshire Senate has been making history as the first majority female legislative body in the country: Thirteen of its 24 members are women. Overall, the New Hampshire Legislature is 37.7 percent female, just a fraction behind Vermont (37.8 percent) and Colorado (38 percent). But New Hampshire also has women in leadership: a woman House speaker, a woman Senate president, and a woman majority whip. The congressional delegation is 50 percent female, including one of only 17 women in the US Senate. It's as if there was a bloodless coup of the state's political establishment in November, and women were the avatars of change.

Cynics suggest that it is precisely because New Hampshire's Legislature is part time and virtually unpaid - members earn $100 a session, plus commuting expenses - that women are allowed to compete for legislative seats that aren't as prized as they are in, say, Massachusetts. It's just volunteerism, like rolling bandages. Why not let the women have it?

But the rising number of women in the Legislature has made a difference. For one thing, women who run are more likely to be Democrats; just two of the 13 women senators are Republicans. In that sense, at least, a distaff-dominated legislature is likely to be more progressive.

Numerous studies of the gender gap have found that women tend to be more liberal - in the word's sense of "generous" - especially when it comes to funding programs for children, the environment, and healthcare. Men are more libertarian, tending to be skeptical of government solutions and protective of individual rights.

More to the point, the tone and perspective are different with women in charge.

"I do think gender has affected the way we discuss issues," says Exeter Democrat Margaret Hassan, the Senate's president pro tem. "Women tend to see problems in a much less segmented fashion, and that has allowed us to connect the dots in different ways."

This is the more interesting question about women in power. Sure, women should be heard more in government - and the law, and science, and journalism - as a matter of sheer equity. But it's not the quantity of women so much as the different quality that can bring real change.

Women see the world as a web of relationships. They are more communitarian and less individualistic. They are less ideological and more practical. It's hard to imagine a better set of qualities for solving the intricate problems that face our world.

What's the matter with New Hampshire? Nothing. They've just seen the future up there.

Renée Loth is editorial page editor of the Globe.

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