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Shaheen teaches Alvirne High School students a lesson on gender equality

HUDSON – Jeanne Shaheen fielded students’ questions about jobs, health-care, party politics and life as a U.S. senator.

But more than her answers, perhaps the biggest impact Shaheen made during her visit Thursday morning to Alvirne High School was that she stood before 300 or so seniors and ROTC students as a woman who has held a unique position in U.S. history.

Shaheen, a Democrat, is the only woman ever to have served both as a state governor and U.S. senator. Shaheen served as New Hampshire’s governor from 1997 to 2003, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008.

The importance wasn’t lost on Brittany Decker, an Alvirne senior and government studies student.

Decker wrote Shaheen inviting her to speak at the school after an upsetting conversation Decker had with classmates.

Several guys were trying to argue that men were better than women in every aspect, Decker said. Instead of getting mad, Decker instead invited women in positions of political power to the high school.

“Sometimes it’s easier to bring up the positive than to push down the negative,” Decker said.

Decker wrote to Shaheen, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, inviting each to Alvirne. Only Shaheen responded, Decker said.

Decker served on a panel of seven students who asked Shaheen questions before other students in the high school gymnasium audience got their chance.

Decker went first, asking Shaheen what challenges she faced as a woman senator.

Shaheen noted that New Hampshire now is itself in a unique position. While four states currently have two women senators, New Hampshire is the only state ever to be represented by one woman Republican senator and one woman Democratic senator serving at the same time.

Shaheen said her entry into politics was working on campaigns, including that of Gov. Hugh Gallen, who served from 1979 to 1982.

Gallen appointed Shaheen to serve on a commission studying the status of women during a time when women on average earned 53 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts (women’s earning still lag, but the gap has narrowed a bit, to 79 cents for every $1).

Shaheen said of focusing on the challenges women faced, she instead focused on “what we can do to change this.”

Throughout the assembly, students showed their government acumen by asking the senator tough questions, rather than lobbing softballs.

T.J. Hebert, a senior in advanced placement government courses, questioned Shaheen about her support of President Obama’s decision to announce appointments to two agencies while the senate wasn’t in session.

Shaheen defended Obama, saying the action was necessary because Republicans playing party politics were preventing appointments from coming to a vote.

Shaheen said she opposes the current law where a single senator could block the senate from even taking a vote.

“My feeling is, vote them up or down. If they win, fine. If they don’t, that’s OK too,” Shaheen said.

Hebert also asked if Shaheen changed her stance on gay marriage – she at first opposed it, then became a supporter – because she was catering first to a predominantly Republican state, and then to an electorate that had tipped more to the Democratic side.

Shaheen denied that her position flip-flop was due to catering to voters. Instead, Shaheen said she honestly had changed her mind, just as culture experienced a change on the issue.

ROTC student Kayla McWalter asked if the U.S. would ever have a woman president.

Shaheen said she expects that a woman will be elected in her lifetime, adding that Hillary Clinton would have made a great president.

It’s important that women get elected into other elected positions, such as governors and senators, Shaheen said.

“The more those doors get opened, and the more women serve, the more likely we’ll have a woman president,” Shaheen said.

At the end of the hour-long visit, as students filed from the gymnasium back to their classrooms, Decker admitted that Shaheen probably hadn’t changed the mind of those guys who had argued the superior status of men.

But the senator’s visit might have done something better by offering a role model to the young women in the audience, Decker said.