Advance Notice: Briefs

The day women took over the Senate in 1974

By: - February 15, 2019 11:45 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

A chorus of “Happy Birthday” to suffragette Susan B. Anthony rang out on the floor of the Michigan Senate on this day in 1974.

Susan B. Anthony | Wikimedia Commons

Although only men were serving in the Legislature’s upper chamber at the time, several progressive organizations sponsored a mock female Senate session designed to dramatize the need for women political candidates.

The action was centered on the birthday of Anthony, who was born on Feb. 15, 1820, in Massachusetts. She became a prominent social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the suffrage movement. She died in 1906 before women won the right to vote.

First Lady Helen Milliken, wife of Gov. William Milliken, and state Rep. Alma Stallworth (D-Detroit) also took part in the Senate mock session.

“It gives us a sense of pride to be able to join together in the respectability of the Senate,” said participant Vicki Neiberg of the Michigan Alliance to End Sex Discrimination. “It’s a sad situation when the only time a woman is on the floor of the Senate is an invited guest.”

Women had served in the Senate before the mock session was held. In 1920 — the first year that Michigan women were allowed to vote in state elections — Eva McCall Hamilton of Grand Rapids became the first woman elected to the state Senate. The first African-American woman, Detroiter Cora Mae Brown, won her election in 1952.

Lorraine Beebe, former state senator from Dearborn who headed the Michigan Women’s Commission, said she had run into every kind of discrimination government and politics offered.

“I never realized how lonely I was until my colleagues on the floor took over that mic and said women are weak, intellectually inferior and emotionally unstable,” she said, recalling her 1967 to 1971 Senate tenure. “I told them they had insulted every woman. Women are going to be on the march.”

A proponent advocate of reproductive rights, Beebe lost her re-election bid in 1970. During the campaign, her family was threatened, her house was firebombed and her tires were slashed.

In 2011, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer became the first female leader of a Senate caucus after being unanimously elected minority leader.

Today, women hold 11 of the Michigan Senate’s 38 seats, with women composing eight of 16 members of the Democratic caucus.

That includes Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), who became the first woman of Asian descent elected to the body. She now serves as minority floor leader, the No. 2 job in the caucus.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.