Michigan lags other states in number of female lawmakers

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan has put a woman in the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate but continues to lag other states in electing women to the Legislature, where one of five members is female — roughly the same as two dozen years ago.

Women are especially rare in the state Senate. Just four of the 38 Senate seats are filled with a woman, a third of the dozen female senators who were there a decade ago.

“It is disappointing,” said Sen. Judy Emmons, a Sheridan Republican who has served a total of 11½ years in Lansing. “We are a citizens Legislature.”

After the recent death of Rep. Julie Plawecki, 26 of the House’s 110 seats are represented by women, about 5 percentage points below the national rate and the high of 31 who served from 1997-2000.

It is the same for other offices, at a time when Hillary Clinton officially became the first presidential nominee of a major political party.

Women are mayors in about a fifth of Michigan’s larger cities. Two of the seven state Supreme Court justices are female, though women have held majorities on the court in the past.

Women hold three of 14 U.S. House districts.

There are questions about how or if women — who are half the population — will ever sit in half or even one-third of Michigan’s elected offices.

Female legislators are mindful of their underrepresentation and encourage women to consider running.

Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican and a potential 2018 attorney general candidate, said she read once that women prefer to be asked to seek office while men are more likely to run regardless.

“What I do to try and correct that is every time I speak to a group of young ladies, I’m like, ‘I’m asking you right now to go out and run,’” she said. “We make up roughly half the population, so it’s important to get that certain perspective.”

There is a view that term limits — restrictions on the length of stay in office that were approved by Michigan voters in 1992 — can help women by opening up seats long held by male incumbents. But under term limits, the number of female lawmakers has largely gone unchanged, accounting for 20 percent to 25 percent of the statehouse.

Schuitmaker, who served the maximum three two-year terms in the House and is in her second and final four-year Senate term, said term limits have negatively impacted the number of female legislators. Working women may be less willing to give up their careers for “job security of maybe two years,” she said.

Female lawmakers say issues of particular importance to women may not resonate as much with their male counterparts. Emmons, who has advocated for anti-human trafficking legislation, said she thinks women more naturally can understand the problem and identify with the victims.

The work of recruiting and supporting women has largely fallen to outside groups.

First-term Rep. Vanessa Guerra, a Saginaw Democrat, is treasurer of MI Women Win, a political action committee formed in 2012 to help elect liberal women to the GOP-controlled Legislature. The group has expanded beyond aiding candidates to actively recruiting them, she said.

“For a long time growing up, I didn’t see a lot of women” in higher political office, Guerra said. “A lot of times, you’re attracted to becoming involved in something where there are people that look like you.

While Michigan ranks 34th-lowest among states in its ratio of female state legislators, voters have proved to be open to women seeking top-of-the ticket offices.

Michigan is among just 11 states to elect women to the governorship and the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, was first elected in 2000. Democrat Jennifer Granholm served as governor from 2003 through 2010.
 

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