U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow. State Senator and Democratic Senate Leader Gretchen Whitmer. Former State Senator and House Democratic Leader Dianne Byrum, and former State Representative and current Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. Though Michigan now has fewer female representatives in state government than it has in the last 20 years
, some of the most notable names among them have something in common: they hail from the Capital region.
Dwindling numbers of women in state government is a statewide issue, to be sure, but in the city where our elected officials work, and where a number of women legislators got their start, the disparity is especially visible, making Lansing the perfect place to investigate why the number of women's voices is shrinking in our state, and what is being done to reverse the trend.
"Women make up the majority of the population. We need to make up the majority of the elected offices - regardless of party affiliation. This is unacceptable." Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum knows as much about being a woman in Michigan government as anyone. The daughter of term-limited state legislator Dianne Byrum, she held her own seat in the House of Representatives until 2012 when she was elected to her current county office. Since the numbers of female elected officials have decreased in Lansing, she has witnessed a lack of attention paid to issues that impact both women and families.
"If a woman is making less money than her male counterpart at work, that affects her family," she says. "If they are being denied access to healthcare, that affects families. These issues known as 'women's issues' are family issues. People forget that."
With women occupying just 28 of the 148 seats in the Michigan legislature, it's easy to see how people's memories could be getting fuzzy on the subject. And while it may be tough to find anyone who would openly disagree that more women in state government is a good thing, without a complete understanding of why their numbers remain low, it seems even tougher to imagine them getting any higher.
The Real Challenges
There is sexism in government. No one who witnessed the 2012 banning of Reps. Lisa Brown and Byrum on the House floor and the subsequent vagina-themed Capitol lawn rally could deny that. But though Byrum was at the center of that event, as well as having kicked off her political career with a 2006 campaign full of misogynist attacks, she counts the issue as one that exists, but doesn't define the trend of fewer women in government.
"We're strong," she says. "We manage to do some amazing things regardless. When a reporter asks you, 'don't your kids want Mommy at home
,' you know how to respond. When the bathroom isn't appropriate for breastfeeding moms in the legislature, you might have to talk to leadership about things that makes them uncomfortable, but these stumbling blocks make you stronger and make you a better public servant."
Where the real issue with getting more women in government, she says, begins with something simple: women not being asked.
"Many women feel they need to do more before they're ready, whereas men with similar qualifications just jump into the race," she says. "The fact of the matter is, women aren't being recruited. We know when women are asked, they will run."
Another factor holding Michigan women back from state office is, perhaps surprisingly, term limits. Though all representatives are limited to three, two-year terms, studies show that states with such limits see decreases in the number of women in office
Why? Byrum feels that women assess the risk of running for office differently than men. If getting elected upends their lives and careers for as few as two and, at most, six years, it simply becomes a less attractive job opportunity.
"It's the income potential," says Byrum. "Already, women make significantly less money. If you add to that the risk, it's not a decision a lot of people make."
The Real Opportunities
The goal, of course, is to get more women to take the risk. While recruitment and term limits may be two of the biggest challenges to having more women in state government, she also sees an opportunity arising in the number of women being elected to local governments.
"Local government is the pool from which many state officials come," she says.
With women making up half of Ingham County's commissioners as well as strong majorities of the Lansing and East Lansing city councils, things are looking up locally.
"Rather than city council thinking they run the place, [this council] is more likely to get input from residents," says newly elected East Lansing Councilmember Ruth Beier. "Women do that very well - not that men don't - but the women I know in politics are very good at shifting through whatever the issue is, getting feedback at a grassroots level, and finding compromise."
True to Byrum's assertion, Beier, who has worked with elections and state government officials in her career, waited until others suggested she run before doing so.
"I spent a lot of time talking to my neighbors and complaining about things, and they said, 'Why don't you run for city council and change it?'" she says. "My gender didn't have any impact on my decision to run. But he fact that Diane [Goddeeris] was mayor and female certainly made me see it was possible."
It's perhaps that factor - seeing one's female peers in places of power - that seems to give Lansing area women extra encouragement to run themselves.
"I think that it's important for young women to see women in power," Beier says. "And when you work around here, and you're dealing with or know some state officials, you get a feel for government, and realize that it's just a bunch of people like you."
That's why Byrum, with all of her legislative accomplishments considered, says one of her favorite parts of being a state representative was hosting tours of third graders through the Capitol - so they could start envisioning women as state leaders from a young age. Not that she's stopping there.
A Future for Michigan Women
Armed with firsthand knowledge of the obstacles, Byrum has started More Women in Government
, a political action committee dedicated to recruiting and supporting female candidates. And since the 2012 events dubbed "vaginagate,"
they're armed with something else as well: momentum.
"June 2012 was an unfortunate occurrence, but it spurred so many fires in so many younger women's bellies," Byrum says. "People wanted to contribute, and I didn't want to put [their contributions] in my own committee to elect. It's bigger than me."
So the funds became part of the PAC Byrum hopes will help inspire women across the state to consider running. She has also made it her personal mission to meet with, encourage, and recruit women of all political persuasions to run - because despite the risks and dwindling numbers, she believes it's worth it, both for the future female candidates and for the state.
"Serving the public is amazingly rewarding," she says. "I would encourage anyone who's even thought about it to do it. Call me. I'll help. If you're Republican and don't want to talk to me, that's fine. I'll find you a Republican to talk to.
"The ability for women to make a difference is just so strong."
And fortunately for women in the Lansing area, the accessibility of female role models in government is strong as well. With numbers on the uptick locally, and the momentum propelling efforts like More Women in Government forward, hope is on the horizon.
But it will take a considerable amount of focus, encouragement, and the willingness of women to take a few risks to turn that hopeful horizon into a new, more equal day for women in Michigan's halls of power.
Natalie Burg is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.