Ep 56: Senator, Governor, and Advocate for Women

with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH)

January 5, 2022


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Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH)
United States Senator

The first woman in U.S. history to be elected both a Governor and a United States Senator, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen is a trailblazer with a reputation for working across the aisle. She is committed to serving the citizens of New Hampshire and improving the lives of the middle class. Shaheen is a leader in Congress on improving access to affordable, quality health care, defending women’s reproductive rights and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. She has served in the Senate since 2009 and is a member of the Senate Committees on Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Appropriations, Small Business and Entrepreneurship and the Select Committee on Ethics.

I think it's important for not just the United States, but for the international community to see that we are working together and promoting U.S. interests around the world.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) Tweet



Joanne Conroy, M.D. 0:22
Well, good afternoon, everybody. I’m Dr. Joanne Conroy and I am a member of the Advisory Council for Her Story, which is an opportunity for us to speak to women leaders so other women can imagine their own leadership possibilities. And I’m thrilled today to have Senator Jeanne Shaheen here. You must be living under a rock if you don’t appreciate what she’s done for women and what she’s done for women not only politically, but in the era of women’s reproductive rights. Jeanne Shaheen is our Senator from New Hampshire and she is the first American woman who was elected both Governor and Senator in the United States, and sets the standards for a lot of us. She is the highest ranking woman on the Armed Services Committee and she has been a champion for reproductive rights. And today, they’re beginning to hear the Mississippi case at the Supreme Court. So it’s more relevant today than any of us thought when we started on this journey over 40 years ago. Thank you, Senator Shaheen, for everything that you do. This conversation for the next 20 minutes is really going to be about her leadership story. There’s so much we can learn from women leaders that have forged the path for us. So Senator Shaheen, I’d like to kind of get started with, how did you get into politics? You were a small business owner in New Hampshire. What happened?

Senator Shaheen 1:58
Well, Joanne, first of all, thank you for inviting me to participate in Her Story and for your leadership on the board, and, of course, for all of your leadership at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, both at the hospital and at the medical school. It has made a huge difference to have you there and we so appreciate your being in New Hampshire. So thank you. And as you point out, this is a momentous day for those of us who are concerned about making sure that women continue to have control over our own reproductive health, and our futures. And obviously, the Supreme Court in the Dobbs v. Mississippi case is going to be acting on that very important personal right. And, as you say, I never thought, 50 years ago when Roe v. Wade was passed, almost 50 years, that we would be here 50 years later still fighting to defend this right to make our own decisions about our reproductive health. So it is a momentous time. But your question was, how did how did I get involved in politics and running for the Senate? You know, I have this theory that some people are born with the ability to sing. Some people have artistic ability and they can paint. And some of us get the political gene. And I happen to have gotten that political gene. My parents were always interested in community and what was happening nationally on the news, but they were never involved in politics. It’s something that I got interested in as a student in the 60s, as the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and the effort to address the war in Vietnam were all happening at the same time. And it was hard not to get engaged in politics. And I actually got started in campus politics, fighting to change hours for women on campus where I went to school. So that was my start. And then of course, after I got married, we moved to New Hampshire, where we are blessed to have the New Hampshire presidential primary. And anyone who’s interested in politics has a great opportunity to get involved in politics with the presidential primary.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 4:16
So talk a little bit about the steps that you had to go through in order to actually be a candidate for your first statewide role, which I think was Governor of the state. That’s not just putting your name on a ballo. There is so much that has to happen behind the scenes in order to actually get into the primary, be successful in the primary, and then in the general election.

Senator Shaheen 4:42
Well, that’s true, and certainly I would not have come forward if I didn’t have the experience that I had had in politics before deciding to run for office myself. You know, I was in Mississippi as a graduate student when Jimmy Carter got elected President, or started running for President, I should say. He had been elected Governor of Georgia when I was working in a newly integrated school in Mississippi and had made his famous statement about the need to end segregation in the South. And I got interested in him because I was dealing with issues of segregation, because I was teaching in a newly integrated school. And when he started running for President, we were back in New Hampshire and I had the opportunity to get involved in his campaign. And that started off 15 years of working behind the scenes for candidates, both for President and for Governor. And at the end of that time, I decided it was time to run for office myself, that the candidates who were all men, who I’d been working for, had not been getting it done, so I really ought to throw my hat in the ring and run myself. And so I ran for the State Senate and served three terms in the State Senate. And that’s what really gave me what I thought was the experience and really the interest in running for Governor. You know, I think it’s something that women have historically been more reluctant to do to put ourselves forward as candidates than men. I spent some time as the director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School at Harvard between being Governor and running for the Senate. And it always distressed me to ask the undergraduate students who were there for programs, how many of them wanted to run for office someday. And almost every male hand in the room would go up and only, you know, maybe a quarter to a third of the young women. Fortunately, I think that is changing. But we have been more reluctant as women to run for office. And it’s important because, as we know, having women in office to make decisions about policy reflects the experiences that we’ve had as women. And I always say they’re not any better or worse than men’s, but they’re different. And it’s important to have women’s voices at the table when we’re talking about policy.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 7:17
Yeah. Just as we look at our Board of Trustees, it’s important to have a diverse board because you actually make better decisions with greater diversity. So homogeneous boards are sometimes myopic about the things they really need to address. I think a lot of women, and probably even some men, don’t always appreciate there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes, as you’ve just revealed, before you actually step into a public office role. When you think back in your time as governor, what surprised you most when you entered that role that you maybe didn’t completely appreciate as you were running for that office?

Senator Shaheen 8:04
There are two things that really stand out. One is, I think I had the perception that, once I got elected Governor, it wouldn’t matter that I was a woman, people wouldn’t treat me differently than they would a man who was elected Governor. And what I discovered is that that gender bias still exists, maybe more subtle, but it does exist. And so just because you achieve a certain goal or position doesn’t mean that you’re not still dealing with many of those same issues. I’m sure you probably have experienced those in your career as well. That was one thing that I had not expected in quite the same way. The other thing that, and this is just a very important personal reflection, one of the things I also didn’t appreciate was the extent to which, as Governor, I was the official mourner for the state. We had a number of very high profile tragedies during my years as Governor and it was very important to be able to be out there to represent the views and to mourn for the people of the state, to mourn with people from New Hampshire, 9/11 happened during my time as Governor, to be able to reflect on that, and I hadn’t appreciated how important that is for people to have officials who, at very difficult times, are there to empathize, to reflect on what’s happening and to help us all as we translate in our own lives how to respond to those kinds of tragedies.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 9:56
Yeah, that’s very interesting. You know, five weeks after I got here, we had an active shooter up here. And it was really important for the organization for me to just ask everybody how they were feeling in the town hall and, all the sudden, you know, people want a leader to be empathetic and they want to be able to share how they’re feeling. And I’m sure, after 9/11, there was just this probably outpouring of shock and grief from people that thought our world has changed forever. So, I loved in your bio, I’m going to shift to the Senate, that the Kremlin would not give you a visa, and how does that make you feel?

Senator Shaheen 10:48
I think I must be doing something right if Vladimir Putin won’t give me a visa.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 10:54
You’re probably in that very small select group of people that are on his do not fly list.

Senator Shaheen 10:59
Yes, that’s okay. Although, as we are concerned about Putin in Russia, what I try and remind myself and others is that it’s not the Russian people I have an issue with it is the authoritarian dictatorship that Putin has put in place in Russia, I just had the opportunity to speak with one of the most widely known opposition leaders in Russia, Vladimir Kara-Murza. And one of the things he talked about is the wonderful history in Russia and the commitment and desire of the Russian people to experience freedom and democracy in that country. So it’s really important that we separate a dictator like Vladimir Putin from the aspirations of the Russian people.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 11:51
Yeah, yeah. Great point. Now, you spent some time at the Kennedy School. Why did you make the decision to run for Senate? Or is that something that you were considering, and it’s a combination of timing and opportunity?

Senator Shaheen 12:05
I really wasn’t. You know, I ran for the Senate in 2002 as I was leaving my third term as Governor, and I lost that race to John Sununu, the current governor of New Hampshire’s brother. And after that, I spent three, about three and a half very fun years at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. And I really enjoyed that position. It was a great opportunity to meet so many exciting figures who came through Harvard and who were involved in world affairs and politics at the Kennedy School. But no, as I looked at what was happening in the country, those were the years of the war in Afghanistan, our invasion of Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction, which didn’t exist, the, really, divisions within the country that kept growing wider during the George W. Bush years. And I just felt like it was important not to sit out the election in 2008. You know, I have seven grandchildren. And I thought about what I would say to my grandchildren, years from that point in 2007, when I made the decision, I said it was it was hard to think about telling them that, well, I didn’t run for the Senate, because I wanted my weekends off and I wanted to have a chance to get out of politics and not have to work that hard. That just didn’t seem like a good enough reason. I thought it was really important to try and win election, to run again, and to work to address some of what I thought was very wrong with the direction that the country was going in at that time.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 14:02
Yeah, well, your commitment has been very visible to a lot of people and certainly to your grandchildren. So I think you’ve set a great role model. You’ve been a great role model for them. Talk a little bit about when you went to the Senate. You know, for many of us, we hear the partisan kind of rancor. It must be very different actually being within that club of 100 than most people actually appreciate that just get social media and/or the nightly news.

Senator Shaheen 14:34
It is, you know, it’s really frustrating because there are without a doubt partisan divisions, and it’s one of the things that I find most frustrating about the Senate, but most of those are really led by a few people. Most of us, on both sides of the aisle, work together on most issues most of the time and do that pretty well. If you look at the list of legislation that we passed in the last six months, we passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which I was very proud to be one of five Democrats who worked with five Republicans to get that done. We passed what’s called USICA, the act that will help to make us competitive with China. We’re working together to get a funding bill and I’m the chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee. My ranking member is Jerry Moran from Kansas. He and I reached agreement on our portion of the appropriations bill several months ago. So there is a lot of bipartisan work that goes on that never gets talked about very much. I just led a delegation to Halifax to the international security forum there, three Democrats and three Republicans. And we all were very united in our positions on foreign policy. And I think that’s important for not just the United States, but for the international community to see that we are working together and promoting US interests around the world.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 16:12
What do you think it is about you, your leadership characteristics, that result in you being tapped for these kind of conversations that will create a bipartisan result? What do you think you bring to that conversation?

Senator Shaheen 16:30
I hope that what I can bring to that conversation is a pragmatism, a willingness to listen to other points of view and respect those positions, and to look for ways to compromise, to look for things that we have in common, as opposed to singling out differences, because that’s how we reach agreement and compromise. And this nation was built on compromise. Studying the Constitution, studying the the birth of this country, it was all about people figuring out a way to come to agreement and move forward together. And that’s still what we’ve got to do in the best interests of America. And to the extent that we have forces on the right and left that are trying to pull us apart, it’s unfortunate because it’s only when we’re able to work together and compromise that we can make progress. And right now, given the challenges facing America and the world, it’s certainly critical that we figure out a way to work together.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 17:38
What advice would you have for young women that might raise their hand when you say, who wants to run for public office? How would you tell them to get started?

Senator Shaheen 17:51
You know, I used to have the chance to talk to a number of young people about their interest in politics and how to get started. And what I would always say to them is, think about where you want to go, where you would like to live. If it’s back to your hometown or if it’s someplace else, go there and get involved in the community in whatever it is you’re passionate about. If it’s schools, you know, run for the school board. If it’s the homeless, work on a committee that’s addressing homelessness or housing. But think about what you care about and go work on that. Because that’s the best entree into whatever you might want to do next. You may decide that you tried running for office, and you don’t like to do that, but you do like to work on the policy side. Work for a candidate that you care about. Get involved in their campaign. My experience as somebody who spent 15 years working on campaigns is that, if you work hard and you’re good at it, that you’ll have an opportunity to advance and do almost anything you’re interested in. So there are all kinds of ways to get involved. There are all sorts of positions that are just looking for people who want to put their time and energy towards making whatever the issue is successful. So I think the only thing that’s missing is a commitment to get involved.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 19:24
Yeah. I would say that people just need to step forward, probably, and say, “I’m interested”. You obviously are pretty good campaigner, though. You’ve done very well in being elected to the Senate, as well as reelected more than once. What do you think the secret is of effective campaigning for a woman?

Senator Shaheen 19:45
I don’t know if it’s a secret or not. I like campaigning because I like people. I like talking to people. I like hearing their views on things. I like responding to their concerns. It’s amazing and one of the best things about being in public office for me has been the people that I’ve had a chance to meet, the people that I’ve worked with. I have a wonderful staff who do such good work every day. And that’s without a doubt the best part, being able to talk to people whose lives you may have had the opportunity to influence because of something that we’ve done in our office or something that we’ve worked on.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 20:27
Yes, your office and yourself are really known for really addressing issues of your constituents in really a very timely manner. You know, there are two categories that people talk about leadership, accidental leaders and intentional leaders. You feel like you’ve been intentional in your leadership steps. But what do you think?

Senator Shaheen 20:52
I think that’s probably true, I think, because I made the decision to run for office, I have to say that was intentional. I made that decision and went after it. So I think that’s, I would have to say that intentional is probably accurate.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 21:09
Now, if you were going to write a letter to your younger self, what advice would you give young Jeanne Shaheen, who just moved to New Hampshire?

Senator Shaheen 21:18
You know, relax and enjoy life. One of the pieces of advice I got from a Governor who had been in office for a while when I first got elected Governor was to work to enjoy what you’re doing every day. And I think that’s probably advice that I would give myself, take more time to relax and enjoy what you’re doing. Don’t always be so focused on the next thing I have to do. But think more about how much I appreciate the opportunity to do this and to enjoy it at every chance that I can get.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 22:04
Yeah. Well, Senator Shaheen, you’ve really been an inspiration and a role model for so many women that are in public office right now and, I believe, women that are aspiring to public office, and I’ve just finished Nancy Pelosi’s biography. So I will be waiting to read yours.

Senator Shaheen 22:26
I know, my kids are saying, “when are you going to write a book, mom”? I say, “ah, I don’t know”.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 22:30
I don’t know. There are a lot of lessons to be learned when we actually follow the path of our women leaders across the country. Thank you so much for giving us your time and serving as the inspiration for a lot of women that want to assume leadership roles at the state and the federal level.

Senator Shaheen 22:51
Well, thank you. I appreciate this opportunity. It’s always fun to talk about our journey, where we’ve come from and what we still have to do. And thank you for making that possible and for everything that you’re doing to serve as a role model and mentor for the women who you work with.

Joanne Conroy, M.D. 23:09
Thank you very much, and I’ll let you get back to work.

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