With the Nov. 8 election on the horizon, six female political officeholders gathered Tuesday on campus for a panel examining personal experiences in government and to address challenges women face entering politics.
A diverse crowd of students and community members gathered in Rackham Auditorium to hear the moderator, Women's Studies Prof. Anna Kirkland, ask the officeholders about their experiences as females in politics. The diverse range of panelists represented several different levels of government, including state and local representatives and University of Michigan administrators.
The Institute for Research on Women and Gender hosted the event, along with co-sponsors the Institute for the Humanities, Ford School of Public Policy and the Department of Women’s Studies.
The discussion covered a series of challenges and surprises met by women in government, and also addressed the disparate proportion of female representation in politics. All six panelists agreed women come by leadership differently than men and find narrower windows of opportunity, facilitating a negative attitude of competition between women.
Former State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D–Detroit) noted that outside factors have largely contributed to fostering such internal competition.
“Women tend to look for permission,” Tlaib said. “We’re conditioned that way. We were raised to compete against each other.”
While several panelists said this competition manifested itself superficially in their experiences, they made clear that femininity and image do not have to come at the expense of respect. Simone Lightfoot, Ann Arbor Board of Education trustee, described the first months in office as a “hazing” period where women are often patronized, demonized or disregarded.
“(Men) see you as sexual, they see you as secretarial and if you are really a player, they see you as adversarial or the B-word,” Lightfoot said. “If you haven’t been called the B-word, then you really aren’t a player in the body politic.”
Beyond gender, the panelists —four of the five who were women of color — also discussed experiences with racial barriers.
Micah Griggs, an LSA senior and Central Student Government Vice President, said her decision to enter the political field largely stemmed from a lack of representation of women of color in that domain.
“Seeing a woman in politics allows other women to say, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ and seeing women of color allows more people of color to think they can do it too,” Griggs said.
Lindsay Slater, a master's student in the School of Information, said she appreciated the panelists’ tenacity.
“I didn’t think before that people could come into politics from backgrounds like these and operate in a non-traditional way,” Slater said. “They were aware that so many challenges were there, and from their own conviction they decided to stick through it.”
The panelists also reiterated that female representation is necessary to properly address women’s issues. Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) said some male officeholders are resistant to addressing such topics, and often table the discussion due to their sensitive nature. Griggs added these are exactly the issues worth noting and challenged the audience to lean into discomfort.
“We need to address what makes us uncomfortable,” Griggs said. “Often those are conversations about race, gender and maybe speaking with your professor. The things that make us uncomfortable need to be addressed for progress.”
University Regent Katherine White (D) said this discourse should start at the university level. She emphasized diversity is a requisite to successful government, encouraging those in the room to actively take part in civic engagement.
“For our democracy to flourish, it requires broad participation by the government,” she said. “And universities are unique places where many different people, of many different races and different perspectives, come together and are encouraged to ponder the roots of systemic problems and form solutions and plans and policies to address these issues.”
Despite the obstacles many women face in this field, Warren said she found her work to be fulfilling. She challenged attendees to break barriers and reap the rewards.
“I can quantify how many ways I helped make someone’s life better,” she said. “Who else gets to do that?”