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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Slow Path to Gender Equity

December 21, 2012

When Debbie Stabenow takes the oath of office for her third term on Jan. 3, the Lansing Democrat will be one of a record number of women in the U.S. Senate — one of 20. One of only 20.

When the 14 members of Michigan’s delegation in the U.S. House take their oaths of office on the same day in Washington, it’ll be an all-but-one-male crew representing a state with a population that is more than 50 percent female. One of 14.

When the state House convenes on Jan. 9, there will be 24 women among its freshly elected or re-elected 110 valiant pols. Only 24 of 110. Among them, the woman who attracted the most attention was Democrat Winnie Brinks, the late entry in a successful effort to oust the scandal-tainted Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-butt-of-political-jokes Roy Schmidt of Grand Rapids.

The state Supreme Court fares better and will still have three women among its seven justices in January. But at the polls in November, only one female major party nominee won — Bridget McCormack — and she replaces a retiring woman.

There was heavy national media hype about female victories on Nov. 6 — especially the five newly elected female U.S. Senators, including high-profilers Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. Hawaii featured a face-off between two women.

And California, New Hampshire and Washington will have two female senators each come January. Hawaii may also if a woman is appointed to replace Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died Dec. 17.

“Twenty women is a milestone –That’s very real progress,” says Jess McIntosh, deputy communications director for EMILY’S List, an organization that grooms Democratic women to run for local, state and federal office. “It would be great to see these numbers happen on the Republican side. We’d move a lot faster toward parity.”

Movement is a long-term process, McIntosh says, and it involves identifying and training potential candidates for state legislative and other lower-tier contests to get them in place for opportunities in the U.S. House and Senate.

But the Great Lakes State has nothing much to boast about. The age of electoral gender equity has yet to dawn here.

So far, Michigan has had a few — just a few — causes to cheer in its past: Jennifer Granholm as attorney general and then governor and Stabenow in the Senate. In second-tier statewide positions were Martha Griffiths and Connie Binsfeld as lieutenant governor, and now-U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, Terri Lynn Land and Ruth Johnson as secretary of state. Griffiths, incidentally, was our first female U.S. Representative.

This year’s contests highlight how far we still have to go. Miller, R-Harrison Township, was the only female victor in the 14 congressional races. In January, she’ll be one of about 80 female U.S. representatives in the 435-member chamber, and none of the Republican women were named to chair major U.S. House committees.

Elsewhere in Michigan, the only other two major party female candidates for Congress were pummeled as sacrificial lambs against deeply ensconced incumbents: Democrat Deborah Wirth lost to U.S. Rep. Dave Camp of Midland, while Republican Cynthia Kallgren suffered the same fate in her challenge to U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Dearborn.

Is there more equity on the horizon here? Well, the Republican male governor and lieutenant governor are eligible for a second term in 2014. And there’s no clear-cut Democratic favorite to take on the popular Gov. Rick Snyder, although the name of Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing often arises from the speculation.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is associate professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service at Michigan State University. He and Dome columnist Stephen A. Jones are co-authors of the newly published Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

December 20, 2012 · Filed under Freedman

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Maxine // Dec 21, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Great piece, Eric. Much of the problem is directly related to term limits. I said during the battle over term limits that it would lead to fewer women in the House. When I left office in 1996, there were 31 women in the House and we had been adding at least one in each of the elections during which I served, starting in 1983. What this also means is that there are fewer women in the pipeline to higher office. Even for those who are elected to the legislature, the time to establish a reputation is so very short. While that may also be true of male state legislators, there are so many more of them that the “exposure” problem is nowhere near as great.

  • 2 Shannon Garrett // Dec 21, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Thank you for this article, Eric! It’s also worth noting that there are only 4 women currently in the Michigan Senate.

    More diversity – gender and otherwise – in the state capitol would lead to richer policy debates, stronger compromises and better lawmaking. Scott Page’s research at the University of Michigan proves what many of us know from experience: diverse groups solve problems better and faster than homogenous groups.

    I agree with Maxine that term limits are a large part of the problem. There’s also very few party leaders and local officials actively recruiting women to run for office, who then become part of the pipeline and build experience and viability for higher offices.

    On April 13, GVSU will host Ready to Run, a bipartisan political training for women. This is a great program for debunking myths about running for elected office, for learning the latest in campaign strategies, and for sharing and hearing from women who have paved the way in Michigan’s political pipeline. I encourage all interested women to learn more at

    Shannon Garrett
    SMG Strategies, Inc.

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