Neil Levesque and Elizabeth Ossoff Quoted in "New Hampshire Magazine"

April 26, 2018

By Barbara Coles, New Hampshire Magazine

Executive Director Neil Levesque and psychology professor Elizabeth Ossoff, Ph.D. were quoted in New Hampshire Magazine. (The article follows in part.)

Remarkable Women 2018: Persistence

Fearless women like Marilla Ricker fought the status quo and launched women to the heights of the political and legal worlds in New Hampshire.

When you walk the halls of the NH Statehouse, you’re surrounded by row upon row of impressive, gilt-framed portraits. Of the 200 or so, almost all are men. Just eight are women. Marilla Ricker, who ran for governor before women even had the vote, is one of them.

It is a tableau that tells the story of the struggle for women’s rights, for a place in politics, in governing, during the past two centuries in New Hampshire. But it only goes so far.

What you don’t see is the fight against those who believed that women serving in office would mean they might neglect life at home and, as one man long ago put it, “burn the biscuits.” More importantly, they believed women weren’t capable of handling the weighty matters of civic life.

Neil Levesque's Comments

Neil Levesque
Neil Levesque
After the first sweep of major offices happened back in 2012, all five women were celebrated at a forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. Neil Levesque, the executive director, says it was one of the most popular events the Institute has had. “A lot of women brought their daughters to see it,” he says. “It was hard not to be proud.”

Why did it happen? What is it about New Hampshire that engendered those “firsts”? Those are questions that everyone, including Levesque, seems to have a ready answer for: It’s the size of the Legislature, one of the largest in the world.

“The 400-member House is designed to be very close to the people,” Levesque says. “Each legislator has few constituents.” Just 3,000 or so, in fact. That closeness and the sheer number of seats create many opportunities for women who are serving in local offices or on boards to take the next step to the Legislature.

Another path forward — working for candidates in NH’s first-in-the-nation primary. “Presidential primaries definitely play a role in people getting their feet wet in politics,” says Levesque. “If they like it, they go further and run for political office.”

Elizabeth Ossoff's Comments

Madam President?

Elizabeth Ossoff
Professor Elizabeth Ossoff, Ph.D.
OK, so women in New Hampshire are shattering all kinds of glass ceilings, scoring one political victory after the other. But what about the presidency? When will a woman be the Leader of the Free World?

“That’s the $54 million question,” says Dr. Elizabeth Ossoff, an expert in political behavior.

It’s one of the questions she’s been studying for years as professor and psychology department chair at St. Anselm College, and at the NH Institute of Politics. “I try to understand behaviors and motivations about why people make the choices they do when it comes to all things political,” she says.

Ossoff got a lot more data points in the last presidential election, the first between a man and a woman, and in the earlier election with a woman running for vice president.

“In an area like politics, which has been traditionally male-dominated, women are going to be more visible,” she says, “and also subject to evaluative criteria that don’t necessarily apply to men.”

A few noted during the campaigns — Sarah Palin’s attractiveness and spending on her wardrobe, and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and her voice that, to some, became “shrill” when she raised it.

Much of the evaluating that goes on with women is, Ossoff says, under the radar: “People say, ‘I don’t see gender.’ I say, ‘Of course you do.’ You can’t not see it. It is the most salient social cue.”

Once gender becomes part of the equation, unconscious expectations come into play, Ossoff says, expectations that are rooted in the traditional roles played by men and women: “People tend to be more comfortable with the paternalistic model, where a man is in charge.” That, she adds, is particularly true of the presidency, which is viewed differently than other elected offices.

Hillary Clinton not only had to deal with the fact her election would depart from the status quo, which can take both men and women out of their comfort zone, she also was following a significant change election where an African American became president. Ossoff says, “There were people who felt that we just had one monumental change and now we’re going to have another one?”

No doubt gender and race will become less of an issue as time goes on, but it may take a while. “You can’t think that, because Obama won one time, it’s over. It needs to happen a number of times before it becomes normal, not just an exception to the rule,” Ossoff says.

Even in New Hampshire, where a woman in high office is not an exception to the rule, Clinton won the state by just .3 of a point.

Nonetheless, Ossoff is somewhat hopeful, seeing the “Me Too” movement as a possible sign of change: “There’s some evidence that, if you can make people aware of their biases, specifically their implicit biases, the ones they’re not consciously recognizing, they may move away from them.”

But it’s not easy, she adds. “People don’t want to admit they’re been bigoted in this way because it’s a negative reflection on their sense of self.” And that, in turn, can set up resistance to changing; people want to protect their sense of self.

Another component of voter behavior that complicates matters — studies show that people tend to react to candidates with emotion rather than reason. Ossoff says MRI brain scans were done of people who are politically knowledgeable and people who are politically naïve. When they were shown information that ran counter to their ideological persuasions, the brain’s emotion centers in both groups were activated before the executive function kicked in to apply reason. “I think everybody responds on a very visceral level,” she says. “They have a kneejerk reaction to the person rather than what they stand for. In the last election, there were strong emotional reactions to both candidates.”

So what’s a woman to do? Being well-versed on the issues goes without saying. But another part of the answer, it seems, is a Goldilocks kind of balance. The candidate for president should be attractive, but not too attractive. (“You don’t want her to be distracting in the traditional beauty queen sense.”) Not too old. (“That hurt Clinton.”) Not too young. (“You don’t want people to wonder why she isn’t home taking care of her children.”) Assertive, but not too assertive. (“What would people have thought if Clinton had told Trump to back off when he was looming over her in the debate?”)

Finding what is “just right” is difficult. As Ossoff says, “There are a lot of layers for people to unpack.”

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