Michigan women perform essential jobs in both Republican and Democratic politics, crafting public policy, helping constituents navigate concerns and representing the public as elected officials themselves.
But doing so can come at a cost.
Women in Michigan politics can face sexism, inappropriate comments, sexual harassment and more as they pursue careers. But they’re also integral to making Lansing run.
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“If we don’t include women in the rooms where things are happening, then women across this nation will be vastly underrepresented,” said Lena Epstein, a business owner and Republican who ran for the 11th Congressional District in 2018.
And if women aren’t at the table in politics, “our needs will be underrepresented, and women make up over 50% of the voting bloc,” Epstein said.
In Michigan, the number of female lawmakers peaked in 2020, with 54 — 36.5% — of the state’s 148 House and Senate seats filled by women. Currently, 53 women are serving in the Michigan Legislature, 11 in the state Senate and 42 in the state House.
Kelly Dittmar, director of research for the Center for American Women in Politics, said women are often open to working together across partisan lines.
And, when more women are in a room, there are signs at the state and federal level “that starts to change the culture a little bit… if you’re motivated more by policy outcomes over ego,” Dittmar said.
Dittmar said one big reason diversifying state legislatures is important is the different perspective women and non-white lawmakers bring to the table.
They have different networks, connections and lived experiences, she said, and can offer diverse sources of information that might not otherwise see the light of day in a committee hearing or on the chamber floor.
“You have individuals with lived experiences that are distinct from the men who have held these positions for so long,” she said. “It changes the debates and often yields better outcomes that are more responsive to the entirety of the population that that legislature serves.”
Women are quick to point out their expertise isn’t limited to political issues that have traditionally been pegged as “women’s issues.” Many care deeply about things like child care and education. But they also have the expertise to bring to the table everything from tax structure to business regulation and banking policy.
Political consultant Emily Dievendorf, who ignited a discussion about how women are treated in Michigan politics when she posted publicly on Facebook about a sexual harassment experience she had, said women often just aren’t who people think of when they’re hiring or looking for consultation on an issue.
“We have plenty of political consultants, myself being one of them, who have their finger on the pulse when it comes to what is happening in Michigan politics, who have run campaigns, who have worked in public policy for as long or longer than several of these men who say, ‘Oh, would you like my opinion on what is happening on the ground?’” Dievendorf said.
She said sexual harassment and sexism can end up hurting women’s careers. Some women have gotten out of the field altogether to keep themselves safe.
In an MLive survey of 40 women who work or have worked in the Lansing political sphere, 32 of 40 women said they had experienced sexual harassment. And 31 women said they had modified their workplace behavior or left a job to avoid a particular man or group of men.
While women’s careers are impacted, “men just keep getting more and more opportunities,” Dievendorf said.
Abby Clark, owner of Athena Strategies, said it is hard work to hire diverse senior staff on campaigns, but hard work that needs to be done.
“I just think everyone can hold themselves to a higher standard on this front. And that’s the only way it’s going to change. It’s going to take a lot of people at a lot of levels prioritizing changing this dynamic,” Clark said.
Dievendorf said she’d been talking with a friend recently about how at a practical level, Michigan politics would grind to a halt without the contributions of women at every level.
“We’re the backbone of this industry,” Dievendorf said.
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