MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire’s election of the nation’s first all-female congressional delegation was the most dramatic example of a phenomenon that swept the country Tuesday, as female voters flexed their muscle in the presidential race and female candidates earned a record number of seats in the US Senate and House of Representatives.
The results tick off like a Guinness World Records of electoral feats: Eleven women claimed US Senate seats, five of them newcomers, bringing their number to a record 20. One, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, rallied to defeat the man who said a woman could not get pregnant from legitimate rape. Four women, Elizabeth Warren among them, took seats in states that had never before sent women to the Senate.
In the US House, women clinched a record 77 seats, a tally that could rise as high as 79 when counts are completed; when the 113th Congress convenes it will include the largest class of female newcomers since 1992.
South Carolina elected a woman to its state Senate, leaving no state legislative chamber without a woman.
And potentially most significantly, President Obama had an 11 percentage-point advantage over Mitt Romney with women.
“If only men had voted, Mitt Romney would have won,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Despite the advances, Walsh noted the elections brought female representation in the Senate to 20 percent and even less in the House, leaving “a long way to go.” But she said the upticks represented a reversal of 2010, when women lost seats in the Congress for the first time in three decades.
“This turned around the trajectory,” she said. “So these numbers are important.”
In New Hampshire, voters also added a female governor to its roster of statewide elected officials, sending Maggie Hassan to the corner office. Hassan, like New Hampshire’s two newest congresswomen, is a Democrat. They join US Senators Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, who were not on the ballot yesterday.
On Wednesday, the wins left women giddy in Manchester, from the Red Arrow Diner to Veteran’s Memorial Park — in some cases, unexpectedly so.
“It’s pretty empowering, actually,” said Kelly Weston, a 46-year-old mother of three girls.
Weston was out of work for seven years until recently, landing a job as an IT projects manager. She voted for Republican men at the top of the ticket because she was “ready for a change.” Yet she found herself comforted Wednesday by the prospect of the incoming Democrats.
“It feels like they’ll be looking out for women,” she said.
New Hampshire is often cast as a conservative cousin to its more progressive neighbors. But it has a lengthy history of political advances for women. It was the first to elect a woman to lead a state senate (Vesta Roy); first to elect the same woman as both governor and senator (Shaheen); and first to vote for a woman in a major party’s presidential primary (Hillary Rodham Clinton).
The reason, specialists say, stems in great part from the state’s citizen legislature, which has fewer barriers to entry because of its token pay of $100 a year and which has been a place where women have been able to rise in the ranks. Both of the state’s female governors — Shaheen and now Hassan — were state senators.
“When women are seen in these positions it’s less challenging for the population to see women running for higher office,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, a senior scholar at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “They say, ‘Why not? They do a good job.’ ”
In Massachusetts, by contrast, the legislature has generally been more closed off to women.
And while Massachusetts elected its first female senator with Warren on Tuesday night, it has never elected a female governor, she noted.
Specialists said that women, like men, were focused on fiscal issues this election, but the nationwide dialogue on issues such as abortion, contraception, and equal pay galvanized many, moving significant numbers of women away from Republican men and into the column of Democratic women candidates.
“It was not the main issue, but it was a factor for many women,” said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
Such was the case for Robyn Livingston, a 41-year-old graphic designer who recently moved to New Hampshire from California. The registered independent had been on the hunt for a fiscally conservative candidate and had considered voting Republican. Then she heard Republican male candidates’ message on abortion in New Hampshire, as well as Missouri, and cast her ballot with the women.
“Love it,” Livingston said of the historic female victories. “It’s so refreshing that there are so many women.”
Carol Shea-Porter, the Democrat who ousted the Republican incumbent, Frank Guinta, in the First Congressional district, said in a phone interview Wednesday that women wanted to know what their elected officials planned for the economy, but also how they would protect their rights.
“It was all of it for women,” said Shea-Porter, who was the first woman elected to federal office in New Hampshire when she won the congressional seat in 2006. She lost it in the 2010 Republican sweep.
Shea-Porter, a former social worker, will be joined in the House by Ann McLane Kuster, a lawyer, who ousted Charles Bass.
Hassan, a lawyer, was majority leader of the state senate from 2009 to 2010 when women for the first time claimed a majority in that body.
She said the election came down to “reminding people on both sides of the column that everybody counts. For instance, that women need to be free and equal, and have their liberties and freedoms respected because that makes it more possible for them to be a part of the economy.”
For the young girls watching her ascension, there was this takeaway: “We should all pursue what we are good at and what we care about and pitch in,” she said, “and when we do, we can make a real difference.”
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com.