Ben Leubsdorf / Monitor staff
11 March 2012
Men and women will gather this month in communities across New Hampshire to participate in town meetings, one of the world's few examples of direct democracy in action.
But for the rest of the year, local government is a man's world.
Women make up 51 percent of the state's population but occupy just 20 percent of the seats on boards of selectmen, city and town councils and boards of aldermen in New Hampshire's 234 towns and cities, according to a Monitor analysis.
Even fewer women are in charge at the municipal level. Thirty-four cities and towns are headed by a female mayor or chairwoman of the selectmen, versus 200 led by men.
"I take so much for granted now, because we've come so far with women's issues. But we still have so far to go," said Vicky Mishcon, a second-term selectwoman in Andover. "I have to keep reminding myself that the Equal Rights Amendment didn't pass."
Women are better represented at other levels of government in the state. They hold a third of the seats on the 10 county commissions and a quarter of the seats in the Legislature, better than the national average. The state's congressional delegation is evenly split between men and women.
And women nearly equal men on school boards, making up 45.4 percent of the elected officials in public school districts that include a Merrimack County community, the Monitor found.
"That doesn't surprise me. . . . Women have historically been active in PTAs and parents groups, and so it's not a huge leap to go from there to school board because you're in your traditional role of caring for children," said Donna Sytek, a Salem Republican and the first female speaker of the House from 1996 to 2000.
There's no evidence women don't win when they run for municipal office. Instead, women simply aren't running.
Researchers and officials point to a number of reasons, including the fact that women usually carry more responsibility for child rearing and studies that show women often consider themselves less qualified to hold public office compared with men from similar backgrounds.
The result is that women are underrepresented in the halls of government. And that can have serious implications for the governed: Many women said they believe female officials put an emphasis on consensus over confrontation, problem solving over political point-scoring.
"This isn't universal," Sytek said, "but in my experience, there have been times when women have been willing to step forward and resolve the problem, rather than win the issue."
One in five
Nearly a century after gaining the right to vote, women are still vastly outnumbered by men in American politics. Women hold just 16.8 percent of the seats in Congress, six of the 50 state governorships and 17.4 percent of mayors' offices in U.S. cities of 30,000 or more residents, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
But New Hampshire has a relatively good track record on female participation in government. The Legislature in 2010 boasted 157 female senators and representatives, 37 percent of the total membership, including a female Senate president, female House speaker and female majority leaders in both chambers. Women today make up 24.5 percent of the State House, beating the national average of 23.6 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Both of the state's U.S. senators are women, along with 10 of the state's 30 county commissioners. And in a sample comprising school districts that include at least one Merrimack County community, 45.4 percent of elected officials - school board members, moderators, clerks and treasurers - were women, based on information provided by the state Department of Education.
But it's a different story at the municipal level, where, until 2008, the titles "selectwoman" and "selectperson" didn't officially exist. While women could run for office, New Hampshire's law books only recognized the masculine "selectman."
The Monitor built a database of 933 elected municipal officials in New Hampshire's 13 cities and 221 towns: all the selectmen, city councilors, town councilors, aldermen and mayors. Most of the information was provided in late January by the Local Government Center in Concord, though it may not reflect all resignations and appointments since the most recent election.
The breakdown: 189 municipal officials, or 20.3 percent of the total, are women; 744, or 79.7 percent, are men. Among chairs of select boards and mayors, just 34 - or 14.5 percent - are women, with men running 200 - or 85.5 percent - of New Hampshire's towns and cities.
The percentages vary by region, with women making up 26.7 percent of municipal officials in Belknap County but a mere 15.7 percent in Merrimack County, centered on Concord.
Merrimack County is also the only county in New Hampshire where not a single community is led by a woman. All 25 chairs of the selectmen and both mayors, Jim Bouley in Concord and Ken Merrifield in Franklin, are men.
The makeup of many select boards could change Tuesday, when voters go to the polls to elect town officials.
Why women don't run
There's little evidence voters won't elect women to local office. While men won 10 out of the 15 contested races for selectman in Merrimack County last year, seven of those men didn't face a woman on the ballot, while all five women who won were elected in races that included at least one man on the ballot.
In general, women do as well as men when they do run for public office, political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox concluded in a 2005 book, It Takes A Candidate, and a follow-up research paper published in January, "Men Rule."
But there is a sizable gap in political ambition. Fox and Lawless last year surveyed nearly 4,000 potential candidates - lawyers, businesspeople, educators and political activists - across the country. While 22 percent of men said they were interested in running for office in the future, just 14 percent of women said the same.
So, why don't women run?
In interviews with the Monitor, former and current female officials pointed to a number of factors, many of which were also identified by Fox and Lawless in their research.
• The leading, and time-consuming, role of women in raising children.
• The aversion of many women to perceived negativity and gender bias in political campaigns.
• The fact that women are less likely than men to consider themselves qualified to run for public office.
And research by Fox and Lawless indicates that women are less likely than men to be encouraged to seek public office, either by political activists or friends and colleagues.
"Generally, women have to be asked to run," said Sen. Sylvia Larsen, a former Concord city councilor and Senate president and current Democratic leader in the state Senate. "And the evidence shows that unlike men, women are not as likely to wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to run for office.' . . . The question is, who is asking women to run for local government? And apparently it's not happening very often."
'My arm was bent'
Mishcon's path to the Andover Board of Selectmen, where she's now in her second term, illustrates many of the issues faced by female candidates.
Originally from Pennsylvania, she moved to Andover in 1987 and said she was immediately impressed by the openness of town meeting government. She got involved on the board of a preschool attended by her son and daughter, then volunteered with after-school and youth programs.
From there, she was asked to run for the school board, and won the first of three terms in 1999.
"For school board, you have a regular monthly meeting . . . but for selectmen it's two meetings a month, and then you have to serve on boards ex officio . . . and pretty soon you've got a lot of nighttime meetings," Mishcon said. "And I think that's very hard for women to do. It's certainly hard for young women to do."
When she passed on a fourth term on the school board, Mishcon said she was recruited by two longtime selectmen to run for selectwoman. And despite experience on the school board and service on the town recycling committee, she said she didn't feel particularly qualified to take charge of municipal issues like roads and trash.
"I did not want to, really. My arm was bent severely to do that," she said. "And the only reason I felt okay with doing that was, I was going in with two experienced veterans . . . so I knew I could sit back and learn for at least two years."
She ran, and won. She's served as chairwoman of the board for a year and is now in her second term, tackling everything from taxes to recycling.
But, she said, town government may not have the same appeal to women as the school board, both in terms of policy and process.
"Once you get to town meeting, women, they just say to me, 'How can you take it, sitting up on the stage with people yelling at you?' " Mishcon said. "It's a very intimidating thing if you take things personally. . . . I think it's the intimidation of the town meeting itself that puts women off. There are enough people in the legislative body that raise their voices loudly. It's not particularly fun."
Like Mishcon, Liz Blanchard of Penacook first got involved in politics through the schools. In the 1970s, she was among a group of parents concerned about special education and ran a successful campaign for the Merrimack Valley School Board.
A school board, Blanchard said, is "an example of something that women get involved in when their kids go to school and they see what's happening. They're more on top of what's happening in the education system than in any other branch of the government."
Still, Blanchard said, she probably wouldn't have run if she hadn't been encouraged by other parents, armed with the knowledge "that other people had confidence in me."
Blanchard later ran for the Concord City Council, serving in the late 1980s - helping the council in 1988 elect Liz Hager as the city's first (and so far only) female mayor - and again since 2002. She served in the state House, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat, and currently serves as a Merrimack County commissioner.
"My husband was very supportive, which I don't think is always the case with women," Blanchard said. "And I wasn't intimidated. I know a lot of women in my generation who are very happy to work behind the scenes but would never run for public office."
How women govern
The dearth of women in government, Lawless and Fox wrote in their January paper, "raises grave concerns regarding democratic legitimacy and fundamental issues of political representation. Electing more women increases the likelihood that policy debates and deliberations include women's views and experience."
But while Congress and the Legislature might debate issues like contraception and civil rights, the work of municipal officials is usually more matter-of-fact: solid waste, road paving, police and fire coverage.
Mary Kay Huntoon, a selectwoman in Wilmot for the past decade, said she thinks the more important gap in small-town government isn't gender, but age.
"We need to have younger blood involved. That's what we need," Huntoon said. "We can't just have retired people doing it all the time. You need the influx of new ideas."
And Tara Reardon - the state commissioner of employment security, a member of the Concord School Board and a former city councilor and state representative - said individual personality is a bigger factor than any general gender differences.
Still, academic research indicates that gender can matter. A 1999 national study of female and male city managers found the women were "more likely than their male counterparts to incorporate citizen input, facilitate communication and encourage citizen involvement in their decision-making process."
And a number of officials said that while there's variation among individual lawmakers, women can bring a distinct style to government, in particular a focus on problem-solving and openness.
"I think that women in local government do generally - though I can certainly speak of many exceptions - do generally tend to work out more compromises than maybe their male counterparts," said municipal attorney Michael Donovan, a former city manager in Berlin and mayor of Concord. "That is one of the reasons I tried to make sure, when I was mayor and had the authority to appoint the planning board, I tried to get to the point where half of the planning board were women."
Sytek recalled she was once on a team of House negotiators working with the Senate on a tax bill. After three weeks of fruitless negotiations ("in order for guys to win, the other side has to lose," she said) she sat down with her senatorial counterpart, the late Susan McLane, and struck a deal.
"We were more interested in getting it resolved," Sytek said.
Mishcon said she once took a group of Girl Scouts to the State House, where they met then-Gov. (and now U.S. senator) Jeanne Shaheen. There, she recalled, she asked Shaheen if women bring anything special to government.
"She said, absolutely, women tend to work more toward consensus, whereas men tend to defend a position," Mishcon said. "And these are gross generalizations, but it works. Just ask anybody if they agree. And I guess that's my answer as well. I feel I definitely don't have an agenda, and I know I try much harder to avoid confrontation, to get consensus."
Amanda Grady, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and second-term city councilor in Concord, said she sees female officials as "community-builders and consensus-builders," seeking public support for their policies, while men are more likely to propose legislation on their own in what she called the "Lone Ranger effect."
"I think it's really important for women to run. . . . I see a marked difference in the way women govern," she said.
'Waiting to be asked'
There's no shortage of programs trying to increase the number of women in public office in New Hampshire and across the country.
Sytek in 2003 helped found the Vesta Roy Excellence in Public Service Series, a training program for Republican women interested in seeking public office. The late Roy was president of the state Senate and served as acting governor for a week after Hugh Gallen's death in late December 1982.
"I'm constantly recruiting candidates because I'm convinced people are out there, waiting to be asked," Sytek said.
Larsen said she's in the process of starting a similar program for Democratic women that could hold its first training session next month. Like the Vesta Roy program, she said, it will target women interested in running for any level of government.
After all, today's selectwomen could be tomorrow's governors.
"Because women like to feel like they have some experience under their belt, if you want to see women get into higher office, we probably need to get them into the farm teams to get some training," Larsen said. "Unlike men, they are less likely to be running a business or in a law firm somewhere and suddenly feel they're totally capable of getting up and running for governor."
"We have a little more humility in that, in terms of our abilities," Larsen added. "But it also holds us back."
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