Efforts underway to get more women in State House

  • Virginia Drye and her mother Margaret Drye both think the New Hampshire Legislature needs more Republican women. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

  • Virginia Drye and her mother Margaret Drye. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 5/28/2018 10:52:59 PM

Virginia Drye says she’s absolutely frustrated by the number of women in the state Legislature who reflect her views.

“I’m 19. I’m a Republican and a woman,” the Plainfield resident told the Monitor. “There’s no representation of that in my district.”

So Drye’s taking action. She’s running for a seat in the House of Representatives this year.

And it’s likely her mother Margaret Drye will seek office as well.

The elder Drye said she’s trying to “remedy” the sparse numbers of GOP women in the State House “by being on the board and now running the Vesta Roy Excellence in Public Service series.”

Named after the late Republican lawmaker Vesta Roy – who was the first woman to serve as both state Senate president and as acting governor of New Hampshire – the decade-old series aims to increase the number of Granite State Republican women in elected or appointed governmental and political positions, as well as in volunteer and staff positions at the local, state and federal levels.

“Slowly but surely we are building a large group of alumni from the program who are trained and ready to run for politics,” Margaret Drye said.

The numbers they’re trying to change are daunting.

While New Hampshire earlier this decade became the first state ever to have an all-female congressional delegation (it currently has an all-female and all-Democratic delegation), it’s a far different story in the state Legislature.

There are 118 women serving in the 400-member state House of Representatives, according to the latest count from the House speaker’s office. They’re greatly outnumbered by the 273 men in the chamber. There are currently nine vacancies.

Of the 118 female state representatives, 79 are Democrats and just 39 are Republicans.

There are seven women serving in the 24-member state Senate. Four are Democrats and three are Republicans.

Overall, 29.7 percent of the lawmakers in the Legislature are female. But it could be worse: New Hampshire ranks 15th out of the 50 states for highest percentage of women in the Legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The percentage has fluctuated over the past dozen years. Nearly 40 percent of state elected offices were held by women following major victories by the Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections. But the percentage plummeted to 25 percent following the GOP tidal wave in the 2010 elections.

Diane Bitter also said she’s hoping to increase the number of Republican women at the State House.

“We’re working on getting more women involved,” said Bitter, a former chair of the Seacoast Republican Women who currently is finance chair of the Rockingham County GOP and a leader of the conservative 603 Alliance.

“There’s a real joint effort between the state party and a number of other groups to get more women to run,” she said.

Four-term Republican Rep. Jeanine Notter of Merrimack said she’d like to see more women from her party follow in her footsteps. She pointed out that she didn’t think about running for public office until she received encouragement.

“You have to ask them,” Notter said.

“If you approach them and say, ‘Why not?’ ” it could change some minds, she added.

House and Senate members earn $100 a year for their legislative service. Many are retired or have jobs outside the building.

“It’s a commitment to run, and it’s a commitment for women because many times it’s not just work but a lot of family obligations that have to be worked around,” Margaret Drye said. “So sometimes it’s a little bigger hump to overcome.”

She also pointed to the increasingly negative nature of campaign politics.

“You kind of have to have a tough skin, and that’s not for everybody,” she said. “But I think – with training and encouragement – I think we can make a difference in how many people run.”

For Drye, it’s a family affair.

If she joins her daughter in running for the State House, she joked that the two could “save money on campaign signs.”

Democrats

While Democrats have a larger percentage of women in the Legislature, Democrats are also working to increase their number of female lawmakers.

Last year former state House speaker Terie Norelli, former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and current national party committee member Kathy Sullivan, and NHDP vice chair and state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark formed a political action committee called GROW, which stands for Granite Staters Reaching Out to Women.

“I absolutely do think we’ll see an increase in the number of women, and we’ll be making choices which women candidates will need our help as we go forward,” Fuller Clark said.

“One of the thoughts we had is if we can get more women elected, we will be able to protect a woman’s right to choose more easily, that we will be able to pass such things as family and medical leave.”

GROW is not alone.

New Hampshire Young Democrats president Lucas Meyer said his group is “focused on not only recruiting young people to run for office but also really making a concerted effort to find young women to run for office.”

“A lot of the energy we’ve seen over the past year has been led by women,” he said. “So as we go out and have these conversations about recruiting folks for the House, we are looking for young female leaders in communities to elevate them and make sure they know that we can support them and help them run for these seats.”

“As we need more young people in the State House, we need more women in the State House,” he added.

Cindy Rosenwald agreed that both gender and generation matter.

The seven-term state representative from Nashua and the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber – who’s running this year to succeed retiring state Sen. Bette Lasky of Nashua – highlighted the diversity that women and younger representatives bring to the Legislature.

“I think having good representation of women is very important,” she said. “But I also think it’s very important to have young people and people of color and people of other religious backgrounds and experiences in general.”




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