After years of misogyny, racism and threats in Lansing, progressive women are in charge

A pink wave crashed in Michigan in the midterm elections — not a red one. What will it mean for Capitol culture, politics and policy?

By: - January 21, 2023 4:57 am

State Sen. Mallory McMorrow speaks with reporters at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

The paintings lining the walls of the Michigan Capitol tell a story of power, of the primarily white men who — year after year, decade after decade — have dominated the state’s political landscape.

There are the exceptions: The portrait of Eva McCall Hamilton, a suffragist from Grand Rapids who became the first woman elected to the Michigan Legislature in 1920, hangs in the Senate chamber. William Webb Ferguson, who in 1893 became the first African American elected to the Legislature, has his portrait in the Capitol, as does the first woman to become Michigan’s governor, Jennifer Granholm.

Sen. Eva McCall Hamilton Portrait | Michigan Capitol Commission

But, for the most part, the faces depicting Michigan’s legislative history in the state’s corridors of power are a sea of white men — a trend that continues to be seen in state legislatures across the country.

That, however, is changing in Michigan. And when the state’s 102nd Legislature convened for the first time this month, its makeup changed dramatically.

After a 2018 constitutional amendment led to partisan legislators — namely the Republicans who had long held power in Michigan — no longer controlling the decennial redistricting process, a record number of people voted in the state’s midterm election. 

Fueled, in part, by a deep anger at the U.S. Supreme Court ending the nearly 50-year-old right to abortion nationwide and lingering concerns about the pro-Trump Jan. 6, 2021, attempted coup in Washington, D.C., some 4.4 million Michiganders cast their ballots in November’s historic election that resulted in Democrats ousting Republicans from their long held seats of power.

Now, for the first time since 1984, Democrats have a trifecta in state government — control of Michigan’s governorship, House and Senate. Democrats also maintained control of all top executive posts.

In addition to Democrats having a two-seat majority in both chambers, women, for the first time in the state’s history, make up the majority of the Democratic caucuses in the Michigan House and Senate.

“It’s phenomenal,” said state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor). “It shows how many of us ran and how many of us won. It shows that something resonated with the voters in our messaging and our ability potentially to be able to carry forth policies that can uplift everybody. I think it gives us the opportunity to really center things in equity and justice. Despite losing Black lawmakers, the legislature is really beginning to look a lot more like Michigan. I think in many ways we can say we are a representative government.”

Following decades of right-wing policies, from the anti-union Right to Work legislation signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to bills that attacked access to abortion and inaction over gun reform, this transformation in state government is poised to usher in increasingly progressive policies centered on reproductive health and access to health care, workers’ rights, expanding the earned income credit, affordable childcare, and pay equity, elected officials and political experts said.

And, after Lansing has been permeated by misogyny, systemic racism, sexual harassment and violent threats, lawmakers and political experts are posing, and answering, a question with optimism: Will there be a shift away from a culture steeped in sexism and bigotry?

“God, I hope so,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s second female governor in history who has faced militia members plotting to kidnap and kill her in addition to an onslaught of death threats, verbal abuse, constituents enraged over her pandemic health policies waving signs comparing her to Hitler, and a seemingly unending list of other harassment during her first term in office. 

“Yeah, I think so. I hope so. But we can’t assume, right? We’ve got to continue to elevate the conversation and highlight when people are wrong and help educate them so they can do better. Talk to others who are well-meaning but maybe have old fashioned notions of what’s acceptable. I think there are good people out there that want to learn, and we’ve got to take the opportunity to make sure that we help make everyone better.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

A record number of women in state legislatures 

Women lawmakers, the majority of them Democrats, constitute about 40% of the new Michigan Legislature — the 14th highest number of women in a state legislature in the country and more than double the percentage in 2016, when women made up about 19.6% of the Michigan House and Senate. 

In the Senate, there are 12 Democrats and three Republicans who are women. In the House, 32 Democrats and 12 Republicans who are women are in office this term. And Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) is the first openly nonbinary lawmaker to serve in Michigan.

The new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate join the three Democratic women who continue to helm the state: Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Whitmer, Nessel and Benson soundly defeated their Republican opponents in November: gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno and secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo, respectively. 

The Republicans were all endorsed by former President Donald Trump, were steadfast election deniers who perpetuated the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and ardently opposed abortion rights.

After November’s full Democratic takeover, progressive women in the 102nd Legislature wield immense power in the state. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) is the first woman to be Senate majority leader, Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) is the first openly bisexual speaker pro tempore, Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) is the first Black woman to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Now, these women, among others, are poised to try and dismantle the web of misogyny and racism that has long ensnared Lansing.

State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) takes a selfie with a young admirer in the Michigan Capitol. | Photo courtesy of Sen. Sarah Anthony

“When the culture is overwhelmingly male-dominated, it impacts everything,” Anthony said. “It impacts the issues that are elevated; it impacts the inclusion of new and fresh ideas. When I walk into my new office, the walls are lined with people who don’t look like me. They’re all men, with the exception of one Appropriations chair that was a woman. But nothing in the Capitol screams inclusion.”

Michigan isn’t alone in the rise in the number of women lawmakers. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey reported there are a record number of women serving in state legislatures in 2023. Since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled; women now hold 32.6% — or 2,404 seats — of 7,383 state legislature seats nationwide.

Nevada has the greatest percentage of women in its state legislature, with women making up just over 60% of it, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Colorado comes in second with 51% and then Arizona with 47.8%. West Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina, meanwhile, have the fewest — 11.9%, 14.4% and 14.7%, respectively.

There is a strong partisan gap. Of the 2,404 seats now held by women nationwide, 1,581 are Democrats and 802 are Republicans. Christina Polizzi, communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), said that persistent gap is not a surprise.

“Democrats almost always have double the number of women running year after year after year,” said Polizzi, whose organization works to elect Democrats to state legislatures across the country. “The reality is Democrats do a better job of recruiting women and recruiting people of color. On the Republican side, they haven’t been able to catch up with us, and that’s because if you look at the actual policies they support, they’re not a party that factors in women or people of color in their legislative priorities.

This increase in women lawmakers stemming from the 2022 midterm elections can largely be attributed to candidates and voters backing abortion rights — such as with Michigan’s Proposal 3 that passed with a 13-point margin and enshrines abortion and other reproductive rights in the state Constitution — after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, elected officials and political experts said. 

“When you look at the numbers on this [the election] and where the Democrats won where no one expected them to, I think there were a lot of voters, and especially women voters, that, when they were casting their ballot, said, ‘I don’t want any politician, whether they’re in Washington, D.C., or whether they’re in Lansing, telling me what I can and can’t do with my own body, especially when you’re talking about things that have been legal for women in the state and in this country for nearly 50 years,” said Nessel, the second female AG in Michigan history and the first openly gay top elected official who has long championed abortion rights.

Additionally, experts said concerns over attacks on democracy by right-wing politicians and candidates who refused to let go of the lie that Trump won the 2020 election brought people out to vote for more progressive candidates. Nationwide, anti-democratic candidates — those who perpetuated falsehoods about the 2020 election or even worked to overturn it — were largely defeated in November’s midterm.

“Definitely what happened with Roe v. Wade was a motivator,” said Jean Sinzdak, the associate director at the Center for American Women and Politics. “It was definitely motivating for a lot of women, especially women on the left.

“Some other things we saw was a focus on democracy and erosion in democracy that played a role in people coming out,” Sinzdak continued.

Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks in East Lansing during the final rally of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s re-election campaign on Nov. 7, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Campaigns marred by sexism, attacks on LGBTQ+ people

For the first time in Michigan’s history, the two major-party candidates running for governor last year were women. 

One of five women-only gubernatorial races in the country in the November election, and one of just nine such contests in the country’s history, the election between Whitmer and Dixon had the potential to elevate women in politics. But instead, the battle was marred by misogyny and attacks on the LGBTQ+ community from Dixon, some lawmakers and experts said.

“They certainly chose the wrong woman,” said Gilda Jacobs, who last year stepped down as president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) after previously serving as a Democrat in the Michigan House from 1999 to 2002 and the state Senate from 2003 through 2010.

“She was so extreme,” Jacobs continued. “Women in the Republican Party couldn’t vote for her.”

Even a Michigan GOP memo written after the election blamed Dixon for the party’s wipeout, arguing her lackluster fundraising and decision to wage a culture war campaign cost Republicans up and down the ballot.

Dixon, as well as DePerno and Karamo, significantly deviated from Republican voters in Michigan when it came to abortion. While 76% of Michiganders said they opposed the state’s 1931 law that criminalizes abortion care, the Republicans running for governor, attorney general and secretary of state did not support any access to abortion, including for those who have been raped or are the victims of incest.

Now notoriously, Dixon was asked during the campaign if a 14-year-old raped by her uncle should be forced to have the baby. Her answer? Yes

Republican nominee for governor Tudor Dixon speaks to reporters following the second and final gubernatorial debate at Oakland University on Oct. 25, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Meanwhile, Karamo, who is now running to be the chair of the Michigan Republican Party, called abortion “child sacrifice” — a term deeply entrenched in the QAnon conspiracy theory to which Karamo is connected. During his campaign, DePerno, who also is running for state GOP chair, also backed the 1931 law and said Plan B should be banned immediately (after asking what Plan B is). 

Transphobia and homophobia also dominated much of Republicans’ campaigns, with, for example, Dixon and DePerno repeatedly attacking drag queens. Karamo, who explained that she entered politics “to fight against abortion,” said in her “It’s Solid Food” podcast that the feminist movement started because women turned to “ungodliness.” She also said efforts to teach about LGBTQ+ issues are “Satan … trying to get children when they’re small.” 

While Geiss said “it was a step forward for women that, in general, we had so many women running for higher office, I think it becomes problematic when some of the women running are — well, imagine Phyllis Schlafly.”

Starting in the 1970s, Schlafly led right-wing campaigns against abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment and was vociferously opposed to feminism.

In other words, Geiss said, there were Republicans, like Dixon, who were “willing to uphold the patriarchal issues that some women get to benefit from, systems that by and large were created by and for the advancement of men, and by extension those men’s wives or daughters.”

Not everyone agrees. Anthony, for example, emphasized that women “are not a monolith.” 

“When [women] are sharing the gubernatorial stage to discuss ideas, it’s a positive thing,” she said. “I’m going to be rooting for women of all political backgrounds and personal backgrounds, and I think that’s healthy. It’s a beautiful thing to see women competing.” 

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) is sworn into office on the first day of session, Jan. 11, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

The red wave that never came

The anger over abortion rights being taken away, among concerns about the state of democracy, tanked a string of pundits’ theories that the country was about to be flooded by a red wave — that Republicans would sweep the election because of a dragging economy and because the president’s party, in this case, the Democrats, typically lose seats in midterm elections.

“The red wave absolutely did not appear,” Polizzi said. “If you look at a place like Michigan, what this election showed was abortion rights was an incredibly important issue, and, particularly in Michigan, Democrats did not run away from that issue. If Michigan Republicans were to gain a trifecta or maintain control in the legislature, abortion rights would be at risk.”

While Republicans claimed some victories nationwide in the midterms, Democrats flipped legislative chambers across the country and landed trifectas in Michigan and Minnesota. No state legislature flipped from blue to red. A party in power hasn’t achieved that — keeping the opposite party from flipping a single legislature — in a midterm election since 1932, according to the DLCC.

This red wave narrative, often voiced by male pundits, was frustrating but not unexpected, Democratic elected officials and abortion advocates said.

Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, pointed out that pundits routinely seemed to ignore the fact that abortion is an economic issue and instead pushed the idea that abortion exists in a silo separate from the economy — ignoring the case made by Whitmer, Democrats and abortion rights advocates.  

“We saw the cost of living really shoot up during the election, and people had a real true understanding of what it means to consider growing your family in the midst of all these other economic decisions they have to make,” Wells Stallworth said. “I think voters in Michigan pushed back on that, and they showed how much they understand that the issue of abortion is also an economic one. It boils down to a decision as to whether or not you’re going to expand your family, if you’re able to amass big medical debt due to whatever complications you may have.”

I think the results would tell you that some of those early polls weren’t actually listening to the general public the way we were.

– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Plus, the media are often guilty of framing elections in horse race terms to pique readers’ interest, a number of elected officials said. 

“I think that having a horse race where these elections could go either way is just a much more interesting story than a story that the Democrats are going to run away with this,” Nessel said. “I think I saw that in my own race: They wanted to make this an upset in the making, even though, at the end of the day, I won by nearly 9 points.”

Despite a wave of narratives that said otherwise, Whitmer said she was confident during the election that abortion rights would bring a surge of voters to the polls, including historically conservative voters who were now backing her because of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe. That confidence in large part came fromround tables that she held across the state, at which voters shared their opinions about abortion.

One woman, for example, who came “from a very conservative small town in Michigan, very conservative family” and was “absolutely anti-choice” said during a roundtable that she became pregnant in her teens and chose to keep the baby, Whitmer said. 

“But that choice was hers,” the governor said. “And so she’s like, ‘I’m knocking on doors for you. I’ve never even voted, or I haven’t voted recently, but when I did vote, I was always Republican. But I’m out knocking doors for you.’ She said this to me, and that was really where I started to appreciate that this was really an issue so many people are passionate about and feel strongly about and it’s personal.”

It was largely that encounter that made Whitmer question the pundits and polls that dismissed the role of abortion in the election.

“As I see the polling, I was wondering, is it accurate?” Whitmer said. “… I think the results would tell you that some of those early polls weren’t actually listening to the general public the way we were.”

The Democratic governor even made a point to bring up reproductive rights in early June — before the Supreme Court overturned Roe — at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Sponsored by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, the confab is populated with powerful business leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists, many of whom are men.

“As we chase our collective success, we must also be a state where women have bodily autonomy and equal rights,” Whitmer told the crowd — which, somewhat surprisingly, gave her a standing ovation.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the crowd gathered outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing for a protest against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

And there were other signs that a progressive pink wave was building in Michigan.

State Rep. Carol Glanville (D-Walker) and Polizzi said they immediately suspected there was something faulty with the red wave narrative after Glanville won her special election in May and became the first Democrat in three decades to represent West Michigan’s once heavily red 74th District — a district where Trump had won by 16 points in 2020. 

Glanville’s victory came after her Republican opponent, Robert Regan, said he tells his daughters that “if rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.” He also called the war in Ukraine a “fake war just like the fake [COVID] pandemic” and shared a meme saying that feminism is a “Jewish program to degrade and subjugate white men.”

Glanville went on to defeat Republican Mike Milanowski in November’s race for the 84th House District in West Michigan.

“I had people tell me, ‘You were the canary in the coal mine,’” Glanville said. “People pointed to my special election and said, ‘We can do this; we can win.’ It lit a fire for Democrats.

“I think it helped others to be motivated,” Glanville continued. “It was something that resonated with a lot of folks.”

Another moment came in April when state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) gave a viral speech on the Senate floor condemning Republicans for attacks against LGBTQ+ individuals and allies like her. Overnight, she caught the attention of President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the national media and became a progressive powerhouse who raised millions of dollars to help flip the Senate.

“What we did — and I’m proud to be a part of it — is really just ripping the top layer of the politics of hate and anger,” said McMorrow.

Ultimately, Michigan Democrats’ victories up and down the ballot, “should be a blueprint” for the party nationwide that want to dismantle the hold that Republicans have had on state legislatures for decades, McMorrow said.

I think people are tired of being tired and tired of being angry. This craven desire to want to keep people angry and continually try to find a new thing to make people angry — people are over it.

– State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak)

“What I recognize in most voters across the state, even if you have different political persuasions, is people are tired of 2020 and want to move forward,” she said. “We went through a global pandemic, and it sucked to have lockdown, school closures. It was horrible, and people want to move forward. I think people are tired of being tired and tired of being angry. This craven desire to want to keep people angry and continually try to find a new thing to make people angry — people are over it.”

Others interviewed by the Advance expressed similar sentiments, saying voters, including Republican-leaning ones, backed candidates who didn’t focus on anger over COVID-19 pandemic health policies or abortion. 

“Michigan is really interesting because not only did you have the 1931 law [that banned abortion] hanging in the balance but you had these legislators that were openly hostile to our democracy,” Polizzi said. “And you have a Republican Party that has strong ties to militia groups. Republicans didn’t have any concrete plan to address any economic issues; they only had chaos to offer and voters saw through that.”

Elected officials and experts interviewed by the Advance said it’s also noteworthy that the definitive victories from Whitmer, Nessel and Benson in November’s election followed tumultuous first terms filled with a global pandemic, armed right-wing protesters enraged over Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies — which researchers documented saved thousands of lives — storming the state Capitol, an endless barrage of death threats against them and their families (Whitmer recently said her husband retired from his dental practice years earlier than expected because of threats), and militia members being convicted for plotting to kidnap and assassinate the governor.

In the wake of what has amounted to a relentless right-wing war against the state’s top Democrats, the majority of Michigan voters made a clear statement in the midterm that they largely do not back politicians who centered their campaigns on animosity towards the governor, attorney general and secretary of state — and that includes more than a few Republicans. 

An analysis by state pollster Ed Sarpolous of Target-Insyght, a Lansing-based public opinion firm, found that about 27,000 Republicans cast their ballots for Whitmer and some 216,000 Republican-leaning independent voters did not go to the polls in an election dominated on the right by candidates who spent much of their campaigns promoting the never-ending lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, as well as attacking transgender youth and abortion rights.

“If you look at the actual policies Republicans support, they’re not a party that factors in women or people of color in their legislative priorities,” Polizzi said. “When you have one party talking about banning the ability to get health care and working to legislate when people can start a family or grow their family, that’s an issue that women were turning out in droves over. That’s a huge thing that impacted our victories.”

lgbt
LGBTQ kids assembled at Michigan Pride, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

An end to the old boys’ club

The road to Democrats’ current control in Lansing, and the rise of women in power, has been a long and winding one.

When Jacobs won her seat in the House in 1999, “there was a very, very, very strong old boys’ network,” she said. The former MLPP president served several years alongside Whitmer, who notched 14 years in the Legislature before ascending to the governorship.

But, nearly a quarter of a century ago, Jacobs began to see cracks in men’s once-formidable walls of power. 

During her tenure, Jacobs became the Legislature’s first-ever female floor leader. Dianne Byrum, currently the outgoing chair of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, served as the Michigan House minority leader and the first woman to head a caucus in the state Capitol; Shirley Johnson, a Republican senator from Oakland County, became the first woman to serve as chair of an appropriations committee in the Legislature; and Beverly Hammerstrom, a Republican who served in the House and Senate and was the first woman from Monroe County to be elected to the Legislature, became majority floor leader.

“Those were historic happenings,” Jacobs said. “Women were just starting to go into those leadership roles. “I think caucus members were warming up to the idea that women could do a good job in leadership.”

Still, shattering a glass ceiling is far from painless — and to shield one another from an intensely male-dominated world, Jacobs said women, Democrats and Republicans, banded together, something lawmakers stressed largely does not occur today in a time of hyper-partisanship.

“When I was in the Senate, there were 12 Republican and Democratic women — then the highest percentage of women senators in the history of Michigan,” she said. “We all were friends; there’s strength in numbers.”

Former Sen. Gilda Jacobs at a bill signing with Gov. Jennifer Granholm | Gilda Jacobs photo

While misogynists, from lawmakers to lobbyists, have tried to make women lawmakers’ days a living nightmare, women are continuing to run for, and serve in, office — something Jacobs said will naturally dismantle that old boys’ network in Lansing. The greater the hole has become in the glass ceiling, the more women there have been to help one another sidestep the broken shards on the ground.

“Women started saying, ‘Hey, I can do this; there’s no reason I can’t do this,’” Jacobs said. “…There are more women, more LGTBQ folks who are out and in leadership — just by virtue of that happening, that’s already a game-changer.” 

After a surge of women candidates in 1992 — dubbed the “Year of the Woman” — the number of women in state legislatures nationwide plateaued around 25% throughout the 2000s — something that changed after Trump was elected in 2016. Following an increase of women candidates in the 2018 election, the percentage of women serving in state legislatures soared from 25.4% to 28.9% nationally.

“That was a shocking jump,” said Sinzdak of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It was the first time in a while that we’d seen the needle move in any real way.”

As the numbers of women have grown in Lansing, women lawmakers said they’ve begun to feel far less isolated. Still, it has been a difficult, and even traumatic, place to work, lawmakers said.

Women lawmakers have long described a workplace in which many of their male colleagues, lobbyists and insiders in Lansing seemed bent on emotionally and physically breaking them down in an effort to run them out of office. 

It’s a cultural shift. Because it’s been so many men, it’s a male-dominated culture. It’s cigar-filled rooms; it’s all the big golf outings, the bourbon drinking. I’m like, I don’t enjoy some of that stuff. I’d love to change the order of business and open some of the cultural norms up. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been.

– State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

In the 1980s and ‘90s, then-Democratic Sen. Lana Pollack — who served 12 years in the state Senate and was the only Democratic woman senator for two of those terms — regularly faced physical and verbal harassment.

There was “lewdness and that kind of sexuality that is totally inappropriate,” Pollack told MSU’s Spartan Newsroom in 2017. “It’s assaultive verbally or assaultive physically.

“The physical assault, the worst of it, was somebody planting a wet kiss on my mouth as a total gross surprise,” said Pollack, who founded OUR CHOICE, a political action committee that supported pro-choice women running for state office, and in 1992 wrote a bill amending Michigan’s civil rights law to end discriminatory practices that kept women athletes off of private golf courses.

It wasn’t just fellow lawmakers who were sexist, Pollack said: Sexism was also rampant among “lobbyists, labor leaders, civil servants, [Democratic] Gov. [James] Blanchard’s cabinet.”

That sexism has been pervasive throughout the years. 

In 2012, for example, then-Democratic state Rep. Lisa Brown was banned from speaking on the House floor after she used the word “vagina” while discussing a sweeping anti-abortion bill (House Bill 5711) that was passed by the Republican-led Legislature, signed by Snyder and severely limited people’s access to reproductive care. 

Brown’s colleague, then-Democratic state Rep. Barb Byrum, now the Ingham County clerk, was also barred from speaking on the floor after she tried to introduce an amendment that would ban men from having vasectomies unless it was needed to save their lives — a key component of the anti-abortion bill.

“I am being silenced for standing up for women,” Byrum said at the time. “This is yet another example of this Republican majority’s misogynistic and cowardly tactics.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib at the reading of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Michigan Capitol, 2012

When Brown and Byrum were banned from speaking, Whitmer was serving in the state Senate and went on to organize a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the Capitol with playwright V in protest.

“They were trying to silence a debate on the floor about women’s health,” Whitmer recalled to the Advance. 

In the decade that’s followed, lawmakers say the Capitol has continued to be a place rife with sexism and racism — a space where the House never investigated former Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who has been accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a child and running a “criminal enterprise” out of his Capitol office. (Democratic lawmakers said they aim for this to change now that they’re in the majority.)

A Senate probe in 2020 also found that former state Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.) repeatedly sexually harassed women in Lansing, including McMorrow. Lucido now serves as Macomb County prosecutor. A county investigation last year found that he acted “inappropriately” with women and people of color.

“I didn’t expect to start my very first day getting sexually harassed by a colleague,” McMorrow said. “It’s been so shocking how far behind the Legislature has seemed from the private sector, where I came from. Diversity is good for business, and it feels like the private sector is so far ahead of the Legislature on this front.”

The examples of sexism, racism and harassment seem endless, lawmakers said. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who spent his final days in office talking about conspiracy theories and toilets, frequently employed misogynist language while in office, saying, for example, that the GOP-led Legislature “spanked” Whitmer over her pandemic orders and called the governor “batshit crazy.” Shirkey also met with Michigan militia members in the wake of armed demonstrators waving signs of the Confederacy and filling the state Capitol. 

Speaking of the Confederacy, against which about 90,000 Michiganders fought during the Civil War, state Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wore a Confederate-flag patterned mask during a May 2020 legislative session — for which he faced no repercussions from Republican leadership.

These are anecdotes that lawmakers said only begin to hint at the deep well of sexism and racism they have endured during their time in office. In addition to a barrage of sexual harassment, women, particularly Democratic women, said when they were in the minority, they faced consistent efforts to block their proposed bills from ever garnering hearings, let alone votes. McMorrow, for example, said she introduced 49 bills in her first term and did not receive a single hearing. 

It is these kinds of misogynist and racist actions that the women who are now in charge emphasize will no longer be ignored — or encouraged. There will, lawmakers said, be repercussions for sexism and racism. Real, lasting and systemic change is on the horizon, they said.

“The Senate is an institution for the people — all people,” Brinks said. “As such, all who serve or visit here deserve to feel safe from harassment and discrimination. Likewise, there is an expectation that all who serve and visit here conduct themselves with professionalism and respect towards others. As leader, I will make that expectation crystal clear. We will be continuing the important work that has started in recent years of reviewing and updating the Senate’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies, and we will make this widely available.”

Similarly, Geiss said, “Our chambers, regardless of party or render or religion or economic background — are not going to tolerate misogyny and sexism and racism.”

“When those things happen, we will be clear that our space is not the space for them,” Geiss continued. “I wish that had happened back in 2020 when my former colleague [Zorn] thought it was funny to show up with a Confederate flag. It was disappointing that wasn’t tamped down within the leadership of his own caucus. We have an opportunity to do the exact opposite. I’m confident the leadership in both chambers will speak out when it’s necessary. It would be nice to have a scandal-free couple of terms.”

Right-wing protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Not only will there be repercussions for bigotry, but Lansing will hopefully become a place where women and other historically marginalized people are truly welcome, said Anthony.

“It’s a cultural shift,” Anthony said. “Because it’s been so many men, it’s a male-dominated culture. It’s cigar-filled rooms; it’s all the big golf outings, the bourbon drinking. I’m like, I don’t enjoy some of that stuff. I’d love to change the order of business and open some of the cultural norms up. It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been.”

McMorrow also stressed that point. 

“It’s going to naturally change how we do things,” she said of more women being in office. “I want to go home and put my daughter to bed; I don’t want to stay out doing dinners and drinks.”

Part of “changing the way it’s always been,” as Anthony said, also means addressing bias and racism within the Democratic Party, elected officials pointed out. Women of color in Lansing said it’s been especially intense to serve in office and not only face harassment from colleagues on the other side of the political aisle but have had to deal with prejudice from within their own party. 

“The journey is very difficult for Black women,” Anthony said. “There’s a difficulty in fundraising; people underestimate how hard it is being from a marginalized community and having to raise money to run for office. I’ve seen folks who would max out and give thousands of dollars to my male predecessors or folks who have the same amount of experience as me, but they’d give me only a small fraction of what they’d given them. You have to wonder why.”

Even within the Democratic caucus, Anthony said Black women “often aren’t taken seriously.”

Anthony said she has tried for years to pass the Michigan CROWN Act, which aims to prevent discrimination by expanding state law to recognize a person’s hair as a characteristic of race, but has not landed much support — including from some in her own party.

“For years and years, I’ve introduced and reintroduced and reintroduced a bill that would ban discrimination based on hair, and I’ve gotten laughed out of rooms, even with Democrats,” she said. “I have heard some of the most hurtful things. This impacts Black women and our ability to provide for our families. Black women have been terminated from their jobs because they wouldn’t chemically straighten their hair. Because this is about Black women, it hasn’t been taken seriously.

“One of my Democratic colleagues, a man, he said, ‘You don’t want to be known for this; it’s just hair,’” Anthony continued. “I’ve been told by folks, ‘You don’t want to come off as too Black.’” 

Our chambers, regardless of party or render or religion or economic background — are not going to tolerate misogyny and sexism and racism.

– State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)

‘These people are armed and motivated and anti-government’

As record numbers of women across the country run for, and serve in, office, their growing political power has been met with a barrage of death and rape threats, a deluge of online harassment, and other disparagement, said Mona Lena Krook, a political science professor at Rutgers University who in 2020 published the book, “Violence Against Women in Politics.”

While lawmakers in general have faced an increase in threats in recent years, politics has become particularly dangerous for women — who are three times more likely than their male colleagues to be subject to threats and harassment, according to a new national database from Princeton University and the Anti-Defamation League.

Whitmer, Benson and Nessel have all faced violent threats while leading the state, while lawmakers, especially BIPOC women, have repeatedly raised security concerns over heavily armed right-wing protests at the Capitol. Dievendorf, Michigan’s first openly nonbinary lawmaker and one of the first openly bisexual legislators, told the Advance prior to being sworn in this month that she “received an email just days ago telling me to harm myself, among other things.”

“I have received many emails trying to get me to not take office, noting specifically my being nonbinary,” Dievendorf told the Advance. “I shared that one with my colleagues, including my other LGBTQIA+ colleagues because they might try to imagine what it may be like for me, but they can’t know. I get these every day lately.” 

These nonstop threats and harassment are about “making it difficult for women to want to continue, to want to come forward and be effective in political roles,” Krook said.

“Women of color, younger women and women from religious minorities are often more targeted because they challenge the traditional view of who is a traditional politician,” she added. “It’s sexism and racism and homophobia and all of those things mixed together.” 

In October 2022, the Center for Democracy and Technology reported that women of color running for office faced higher rates of online abuse than their white counterparts, and a September report from the Center for American Women and Politics found women of color who are mayors are confronted with higher rates of violence, harassment and threats than white women.

The attacks against women politicians “goes above and beyond what men, especially white men, face in public office,” Krook said. “Men will face insults like, ‘You’re stupid; I hate your policies,’ but to women, they’re like, ‘You stupid, fat bitch; go back to the kitchen.’ That’s not contributing to debate.”

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Using the plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer as an example, Krook said there is a growth in violence and threats against women in office, both in the U.S. and worldwide. 

“These people are armed and motivated and anti-government,” Krook said of the militia members, all men, who have been sentenced in the plot to kidnap the governor. 

In a victim impact statement given by Whitmer prior to the sentencing of three militia members convicted in the plot to kidnap and kill the governor, she spoke of deep psychological wounds.

“I’m asked all the time what being the target of this conspiracy has done to me and my family,” Whitmer said in the impact statement. “I want my family to know that their mom, their wife, their daughter, their sister is tough and stands up for what she believes in. But I cannot tell them honestly that I am unfazed. I now scan crowds for threats. I think carefully about the last thing I say to people when we part. I worry about the safety of everyone near me when I’m in public.”

This growing number of attacks against women in office, as well as their staff and families, poses a significant danger to democracy, Krook explained. 

“Young women are saying they don’t want to run for political office; they say they’d never run given how vitriolic it’s gotten online,” Krook said. “It’s turned them off to a career in public service. This is about the future of our democracy.”

Whitmer said the same.

“A conspiracy to kidnap and kill a sitting governor of the state of Michigan is a threat to democracy itself,” the governor said in her impact statement. “And this kind of violent extremism has become disturbingly common.”

Krook also noted that women who are working for female politicians are often on the frontlines of the abuse against their bosses. That, Krook said, can deter staff who had hoped to run for office someday from doing so.

A conspiracy to kidnap and kill a sitting governor of the state of Michigan is a threat to democracy itself. And this kind of violent extremism has become disturbingly common.

– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

“Female representatives are more likely to have female staff,” Krook said. “They’re the ones answering the phone, opening their emails and receiving this abuse. Sometimes the representatives don’t even know the volume of the threats, but their staffers do. These are young women who are interested in a political career in the future. Seeing the abuse, they’re like, ‘You know what? Forget it.’”

Sinzdak, of the Center for American Women and Politics, also emphasized the threat that sexism poses to democracy, noting that “some of what we’re seeing related to anti-democratic movements is related to a misogynistic platform that’s a real concern.”

“What we as a society can be doing more is calling out the misogyny towards women candidates,” she said. “We can play a role by being encouraging, being supportive of women candidates. Think of it as not just about electing more women to office but diversifying our government institutions, which will put all of us in a better place.”

Despite this surge in violence and threats against women, action to address it and the level of public discourse around it has not risen to the level it should be, Krook said. 

“I think it’s overlooked because racism and sexism are so normalized in our society,” she said.

Still, while the death and rape threats are a deterrent to women running, women are still candidates and legislators — and in higher numbers than ever, Krook and a number of lawmakers emphasized. 

“Suddenly, there are more women to talk to [in politics] and more women who can speak out,” Krook said. 

Nessel noted the fact that women — she, Whitmer and Benson — fill the top three positions in the state “inspired even more women to run for office.”

“I think it allows people to see themselves in these positions, and it inspires more people to run,” Nessel said.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids, Speaker of the House Joe Tate (D-Detroit), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel pose for a photo during the Michigan Inauguration on Jan. 1, 2023. | Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance

A new day for policy

As Democrats take control in Lansing, lawmakers and policy leaders are hopeful the new Legislature will be able to pass a long list of legislative priorities that range from axing the 1931 law banning abortion and repealing the anti-union right-to-work laws to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for working families and protecting LGBTQ+ rights.

“What we’ve seen in the Michigan Legislature, and our country’s history, is a majority of legislators have been men, and particularly older men,” McMorrow said. “We’ve seen legislation that impacts women, especially working women and members of the LGBTQ community and people of color, get pushed to the back burner.”

Democrats are now putting an end to that, McMorrow and other elected officials said. With more lawmakers and staff who have a wider range of lived experiences in Lansing — people who have known poverty, are caretakers of children and parents, have lived day in and day out under sexist and racist systems of power — there will be a chance for the Legislature to champion policies that better reflect the lives of people who are not solely white, male, straight and wealthy, Democratic lawmakers said. 

“I think it gives us an opportunity to be more intersectional in our policymaking,” said Geiss, who added she’s hopeful there will be bipartisan support for Democratic-led policies in the wake of an election in which Democrats took control of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years.

“Because we have slim majorities, it requires we work with our colleagues across the aisle who are not fringey,” Geiss said.

Sinzdak, of the Center for American Women and Politics, also emphasized the importance of having people from a wide range of backgrounds in office.

“Obviously, women aren’t a monolith, and there are partisan differences, but the reality of it is whenever our government institutions are diverse, that makes for a richer, deeper policy process and that’s important,” Sinzdak said. “The diversity of our government bodies is important for all of us. When they look like the communities they serve, it will be a better outcome.”

If we cannot tackle something like pay equity or childcare, if we can’t really start thinking about wages for health care workers and care takers, then we have completely missed the mark. We see women in the care professions like education and health care being left holding the bag with lower wages, terrible working conditions.

– State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

During their first week in office, Democrats introduced legislation that would roll back the state’s pension tax, increase the earned income tax credit, expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual and gender identity, restore the state’s prevailing wage law, and repeal both the Right to Work anti-labor policy and the 1931 law criminalizing abortion care.

A wide range of lawmakers and advocates, including Wells Stallworth and Michigan League for Public Policy President and CEO Monique Stanton, say getting rid of the 1931 law banning abortion must be a priority for Democrats — something Whitmer also emphasized in her inauguration speech earlier this month.

“That is an early priority,” Pohutsky said of the 1931 law. “With having Proposal 3 passed, it’s not as pressing of a need, but it is still something that we just absolutely need to clean up and take off the books.” 

Pohutsky and Geiss are the lead sponsors of bills introduced this month to repeal the 1931 law.

State Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) and state Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) introduced legislation on Thursday that would expand the EITC. The tax credit benefits low- and moderate-income families making less than about $59,000 a year, and lawmakers said increasing it will help individuals access tax breaks that translate to more money for items like food and rent.

“The Earned Income Tax Credit is transformative for families who are struggling in poverty,” state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) said.

Stanton said the MLPP is “hoping to see strong policy tied to economic justice, maternal health, childcare, and workplace improvements,” including lawmakers expanding the EITC to 30%. 

“Our No. 1 policy we’ve been working on over the last year is an expansion of the earned income tax credit in Michigan,” Stanton said. “By expanding that, it will lift people out of poverty and address some of the worker shortages we’re experiencing in Michigan.”

Mothering Justice held its 10th annual “Mama’s March” in Lansing on June 15, 2022. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Rivet’s Senate Bill 3 increases the EITC to 15% in 2023 and ends with a 30% boost by 2026. In the House, Shannon introduced House Bill 4002, which increases the EITC to 20% beginning in 2023.

Addressing the gender pay gap and making affordable childcare far more accessible will also lift people from poverty, Anthony said.

“If we cannot tackle something like pay equity or childcare, if we can’t really start thinking about wages for health care workers and care takers, then we have completely missed the mark,” Anthony said. “We see women in the care professions like education and health care being left holding the bag with lower wages, terrible working conditions.” 

That, Anthony said, must change. She doesn’t doubt that it will — as she believes Lansing’s culture will undergo dramatic transformations as well. 

“It was not long ago that people were talking about the governor’s dress,” Anthony said of FOX-2 running sexist remarks about Whitmer’s attire during her first State of the State address in 2019. “We’re slowly getting to a better place. It is exciting.”

Michigan Advance reporters Allison R. Donahue and Laina G. Stebbins and Editor Susan J. Demas contributed reporting to this story.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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