Raimondo, Sen. Hassan reflect upon role of women in politics

Politicians highlight how female leadership has empowered RI at 125 Years of Women at Brown Conference

staff writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Governor Gina M. Raimondo and Senator Maggie Hassan ’80 P’15, D-N.H., spoke about the importance of women in politics and their own experiences as leaders during a conversation with President Christina Paxson P’19 at the 125 Years of Women at Brown Conference on Saturday.

Women “tend to be drawn to (politics) for reasons that our male counterparts” are not, Hassan said. “We tend to have a particular focused goal of community activism that threw us into advocacy and then into public life,” she added.

Hassan decided to run for public office after working to make her son, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy, a part of their community. “It was being his mother and advocating for him, and bringing the skills that I have as a lawyer to that work, that drew me to run for office,” she said. “The more people with different experiences at the decision-making table, the better decisions we make,” she added.

Raimondo made the decision to enter politics after reading that “on account of budget shortfalls, certain libraries were going to be closed (and) the public bus service was going to be cut night, weekends, and holidays,” she said. She recalled telling her husband, “enough is enough. We can do better, and I want to give (politics) a try.”

Female political leadership in Rhode Island is uncommon. Raimondo is the first female governor, and there has only been one female senator in the state’s history.

“It’s not charitable to make sure that women are a part of the workforce, or part of the government, or part of academia,” Raimondo said. “The fact of the matter is, we’re not going to be as good if we don’t. Because you can’t cut out the brains and the talent or creativity of half the world’s population.”

Today, female leadership empowers Rhode Island, Raimondo said. In part, “Rhode Island is on the move is because we have a fabulous woman running Brown, we have a fabulous woman running RISD, and I’m doing my part,” she added.

Hassan’s home state of New Hampshire, on the other hand, has much more female leadership in government. “New Hampshire voters are very used to voting for women. Once they get used to it, it tends to continue,” Hassan said.

Hassan and Raimondo discussed two pressing concerns in their states: employment and opioids. Raimondo noted that when she took office in 2014, Rhode Island had the highest unemployment of any state in the country, while today, that rate falls below the national average. She is spearheading an initiative to help Rhode Island graduates in STEAM fields who work in the state with student loan repayment. Hassan introduced a senate bill for the federal government to forgive some student loans for people who start small businesses.

In both New Hampshire and Rhode Island, opioid misuse poses a significant problem. Despite an increasing effort to combat the issue, “it’s just not going in the right direction,” Raimondo said. On average, one person dies every day from opioid overdose in Rhode Island, she said.

But Hassan found hope in the the way that people around her state are working to combat stigma against opioid use, which she sees reflected in how progress advances in America. “When people stand up and talk about who they are, what they believe, what their lives are like and insist that they matter too, we finally change. And that’s what it has taken,” she said.

Paxson told Hassan and Raimondo that she has heard from some students that although they had previously been interested in pursuing careers in politics, they have been at least temporarily discouraged. To this, Raimondo responded, “If the smartest, most talented, most committed people don’t get into government, then we’re going to have bad consequences, and it’s going to be on us.”

“We have an obligation to serve. The country right now is in a very scary place. We can get out of this and we will get out of this,” she added. “Good people need to step up.”

Hassan urged audience members worried about the country’s direction to reach out to friends and family in Republican states and talk about issues they care about in personal terms, rather than abstract ones.

“It is easy to talk to people you agree with. We have a lot of people in this country who know the world is changing so rapidly around them and they know their job in, let’s say old manufacturing, isn’t there forever. They can see the digital economy unfolding and they do not see a place for themselves in it. They are worried and they are scared and they don’t have time to follow the fine points of which politician fact-checked the best yesterday,” she said.

“What they do respond to, and what you can be helpful with, is outreach and conversation that respects who each and every one of us is,” Hassan said. “More than anything, we have to remember what binds us as Americans, and we have to love each other. When we do that, we are strong and we are great.”