State Rep. Alma Smith (D-Washtenaw) said she can recall the days when the number of female representatives was higher. “When I came into the Michigan Senate, I was one of three women, and our numbers doubled in the next election. We grew steadily,” she said. Smith served in the state Senate from 1994 to 2002 and now represents Washtenaw County in the state House of Representatives.

Things have changed since 1998, when the number of women in the Michigan House of Representatives reached a high of 31. Today, there are only 19 women. Making up just 17 percent of the 110 members of the House, this number is a new low for female participation in the state Legislature.

Some representatives said they feel that term limits are the biggest barrier to women entering the political field. Representatives in the Michigan House may serve three two-year terms, a fact that some feel takes away the incentive for women to run for an elected office.

“Women were able to look at politics as a career (prior to the term limits),” Smith said. She added that women with careers could see politics as an additional interruption after maternity leave.

Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Washtenaw) said she agrees. “It’s not easy for women to take this time out of their lives,” she said.

The representatives also had other ideas for the causes of the low number of women. Byrnes said a major barrier is the need for economic backing when running for elected positions. She said she thinks there is a double standard in what is appropriate for raising money. “Women are not as assertive — they think people will think ill of them. It’s a matter of self assurance,” she said.

Smith added that women tend to be more timid in their own contributions to a campaign. “(Women will) write a $20 or $50 check — we have to teach them to add that zero,” she said.

Smith said she thinks the nastiness of running for office may turn women away from the positions. “Your opponent will look for flaws,” she said. “I’m sure women don’t want to expose their family to this,” she added.

Women’s attention to their families could also put up more barriers to pursuing politics. Rep. Kathy Angerer (D-Washtenaw) said women are not interested because of the high demand on their time. “Women have primary responsibility for rearing children,” she said.

Generally, elected officials are recruited by individual political parties, and Byrnes said she thinks a lack of recruitment leads to the low number of women in the House. Spokesman for the Michigan Republicans Nate Bailey said the recruitment process attempts to be representative of the voting support of the party.

“Obviously our end is always to recruit the best candidates possible, and they are often of a diverse nature,” he said. Bailey did not report of any recruitment specifically for women.

“We don’t work off a quota system,” he said.

Similarly, Jason Moon, spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party, said the party does not have recruitment efforts specifically for women. But he said they do work closely with their women’s caucus.

“We make an effort to reach out to all different groups,” he said.

Whatever the cause of these low numbers, each of the representatives agreed that a lack of women in state politics has negative effects on the state, in which women make up about 52 percent of the population.

Byrnes said the low number of women in politics affects the legislation. She said women tend to give family issues, such as education, day care and obesity in children, more attention than male representatives do.

Smith said the women in the House have brought about a more focused conversation on education. “We started to change the curriculum. It’s an incredibly different conversation that takes place when women are at the table,” she said.

Other issues tackled by the female representatives include the wage disparity between the genders in the state. A recent study published by the national Institute for Women’s Policy Research gave Michigan a ranking of 49th in the country for women’s wages.

There may also be differences in the ways in which men and women negotiate with other legislators. Political Science Prof. Ann Lin said women tend to be able to work well with others. She said a great deal of research on women in the state Legislature has shown that women tend to be able to build bipartisan coalitions.

“We now have a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature — having more women may help us to build bridges, especially during a time of a bad budget,” Lin said.

April Shaw, senior policy analyst at IWPR, said the low number of women in politics is not unique to Michigan. “There are not enough women in elected office anywhere in this country,” she said. In fact, Michigan was ranked the second best state in the country for women’s political participation. To come up with this high rating, the study looked at female politicians, such as the governor and the secretary of state, as well as high voter registration and turnout among women in the state.

“Women are still far from equal to men, but in terms of the rest of the country, Michigan is doing pretty well,” Shaw said.

But she added that there is always room for improvement. “There need to be policies in place that make sure the media is giving fair and equal coverage to all candidates,” she said.

Shaw also recommended campaign finance reform to help women who tend to not have as much access to economic resources. “It helps level the playing field when you don’t need a ton of money to get elected,” she said.

Angerer said the good examples of women in politics should inspire other women to run for public office. She said Gov. Jennifer Granholm presents a good example of a woman who is both a mother and on top of her career in what is stereotypically known as a man’s world. “She functions well, her being a woman isn’t the first thing we see — we see a great leader,” she said.

Lin said that as more women are elected into political positions, they can have varied political careers and not simply represent women. “Whenever a group is not a token presence in the Legislature, the more effective they can be,” she said.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.