“Badass Women of Washington” TV special airs Saturday at 2:30pm E.T.
Editor’s Note: This series was born during a lunch in early 2017, when we wondered what Hillary Clinton’s loss meant for women.
Our answer: Women are already breaking barriers in a man’s town, muscling their way into power and staying there. Their stories show there are Badass Women all around Washington.
— Dana Bash, Abigail Crutchfield & Rachel Smolkin
When I passed through the New Hampshire Institute of Politics during the 2016 presidential campaign, I paused to look at the amazing photographs of many would-be presidents who have come through the Granite State over the decades. But it was a young campaign aide off to the side who drew my attention.
That aide was Jeanne Shaheen, who went on to become New Hampshire’s first female governor and then its first female senator – a job she has held since 2009. But first she worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in 1976 and ran four New Hampshire campaigns herself, including Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential run.
“I learned a lot. I learned a lot about running a campaign, about what it takes – about how hard it is. And it’s harder when you’re the candidate,” she told me during the hour we spent together on Capitol Hill.
Shaheen didn’t become a candidate herself until she ran for state Senate in 1990 as a 43-year-old mother of three. She’s a barrier-breaking badass woman who showed that women can still nurture their families while taking on the tough world of politics, including her current role as the sole female member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I decided all the men I’d been working for hadn’t gotten it done,” she said. “So I needed to run myself.”
Her first campaign was a family affair. Her husband, Billy, also a strong force in New Hampshire Democratic politics, left a judgeship to help her run, and her family was always together on the campaign trail.
“When I got involved in politics and started running, there were questions about whether a woman could take care of her kids and serve in office. And that was never an issue when I ran,” Shaheen said. “And I think it was because people saw my family so visibly. And it was clear that everybody was involved in the effort.”
Learning from defeat
After three terms as New Hampshire’s governor, Shaheen decided not to go for a fourth and instead to run for US Senate – but she lost the first time around. She admits it was quite humbling.
“It also taught me that you can’t always control the outcome of an election. You can do what you think is everything right, and you still may not win,” she said.
After she was defeated for US Senate in 2002, she spent several years running the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
There, she began a passion she continues to this day: encouraging young women to run for office – which is not historically easy.
“When I had a group of undergraduates in the room, I would say to them, ‘How many of you want to run for office someday?’ And almost every male hand in the room would go up. And very few of the young women,” she remembered.
“A friend used to always tell me that women run for office because they want to accomplish something. They want to see a change in the hospital. They want to see something happen in schools,” she said.
“And men run for office because they want to be in office,” I said, finishing her sentence as she agreed with a laugh.
She admitted she was reluctant to get back into politics but decided to run again for the US Senate in 2008 because she couldn’t face her children and grandchildren if they later asked why she had a chance to serve again but declined.
Anti-Iraq War sentiment was peaking in New Hampshire and around the country. Public polls also showed that she could beat Republican Sen. John Sununu in a rematch. She did just that.
Now in her second term, Shaheen sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where it is still almost entirely a man’s world. Twenty-one senators sit on that committee, and, shockingly, Shaheen is the only woman.
We chose to do our interview in the storied committee room, where she shared a classic example of an unnecessary challenge that comes from being the only woman with 20 men.
We spoke shortly after International Women’s Day, which she and Republican Sen. Susan Collins usually commemorate with a bipartisan resolution on the Senate floor. To get it out of committee, she said she usually has support from many of the men, but each year it’s been held up by one or two of the male senators objecting to something in the way the resolution was worded. It eventually passed, but she says it was unnecessarily difficult.
I asked if being the sole woman on such an important committee makes her feel a special sense of responsibility.
“It’s not so much feeling a responsibility, but as women, we have different experiences. Women make up 51% of our population, but 70% of those in poverty are women and children. Women and girls. Two-thirds of those who aren’t in school are girls,” she said. “There is an important perspective that we need to have as we’re thinking about our foreign policy around the world.”
Descendent of Pocahontas
Fun fact: Shaheen can trace her own lineage back to a very famous historical woman: Pocahontas.
“I actually have the family tree to show that,” said Shaheen, beaming with pride.
It’s kind of ironic since President Donald Trump tries to belittle Shaheen’s colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts by calling her Pocahontas – because Warren once claimed Native American heritage.
Has she thought about telling Warren that Pocahontas is actually her ancestor?
“It’s kind of a sensitive topic,” Shaheen replied. “So probably not.”
Warren and Shaheen are two of 21 women now in the Senate. When I first started covering the Senate in 1998, there were only nine.
Still, even when there were only two or three, the women of the Senate have had a bipartisan sisterhood that was nurtured by Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who retired from Congress last year but is still known as the dean of the Senate women. The Democrat worked with then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to make sure the female senators held a monthly off-the-record dinner.
“We have all really benefited from the efforts of Kay Bailey Hutchison and Barbara Mikulski. Because they started this dinner club … where they got the women in the Senate together on a regular basis, Republicans and Democrats, to get to know each other,” Shaheen said.
The dinners – where, I am told, wine is always served – are about sharing experiences and getting to know one another on a personal level. As a result, several pieces of bipartisan legislation were born.
“I think the best example during my time here has been the Violence Against Women Act. When we finally got all of the women senators on as co-sponsors, that’s when the legislation moved,” Shaheen recalled.
Twenty-one may seem like a lot of female senators to serve at once, considering there have only been 50 female senators in all of American history. But it is still only 21% of the Senate, and women make up more than 50% of the population.
“If we continued at the same rate that we had been electing women to Congress, it will take us 100 years to reach parity. So I’m not willing to wait that long,” Shaheen said. “We need to get young people excited about politics, excited about government.”
To her grandkids, she is ‘Govie’
For Shaheen, teaching the next generations starts with her own family. Her oldest daughter, Stefany, was on the city council in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When she decided not to run again, there was talk of her running for higher office, but she decided not to do it. Shaheen says she expects her daughter to run again when her children are a bit older.
Shaheen’s family of three daughters has grown to include seven grandchildren. While many grandmothers are called grandma, nana or meemaw, Shaheen’s grandkids call her “Govie.”
“I was governor when my first grandchild was born, Ellie, who is now 17,” Shaheen explained. “My daughters decided that Govie was something better to call me, and it stuck.”
Back home in New Hampshire, CNN cameras watched Shaheen engage with and encourage young people.
She approached a group of college students at her favorite diner, Young’s, in Durham, and was excited to hear one of the young women there was running for student government.
She offered advice I have heard from other barrier-breaking Senate women like Dianne Feinstein, which is to start at the local level.
“We have literally thousands of positions in this country at the local and county levels that go unfilled because people won’t run for them, and it’s a great way to learn,” she told the students at the table as they hung on her every word.
“For me, getting young people engaged in politics and public service is really one of the most fun things that I get to do,” she later told us.
“Democracy only works as well as those who participate, and if young people are turned off, then it’s not going to be good for the next generation.”