Is Michigan ripe for a women-majority Legislature? Advocates eye one in ‘24
- Women make up 40 percent of the Michigan Legislature, slightly ahead of the national average
- Advocates say gender parity is within reach in Michigan, other states
- National group held training program for aspiring women political candidates, campaign managers in Detroit this month
DETROIT — Tracy-Ann Jennings never imagined herself managing political campaigns, let alone running her own.
But after a friend expressed interest in running for mayor, the Benton Harbor resident — a consultant and mom of four with a background in municipal government and economic development — wondered what it would take to put together a successful political campaign.
This month, she arranged childcare for three of her kids, strapped her youngest into a car seat and drove to Detroit to attend a training program for female aspiring candidates and campaign managers. Almost immediately, others told her she was setting her sights too low, urging her to consider running for office.
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That “ignited a fire and a passion in me that I think I forgot I had” amid the day-to-day duties of work and motherhood, Jennings said.
“I never really had an idea about myself other than just volunteering with a campaign or a cause,” Jennings, 41, said. “I feel like I’m where I need to be and where I’m supposed to be.”
Those hoping to close the gender gap in the Michigan Capitol and statehouses across the country view women like Jennings as prime candidates for diversifying political spaces long dominated by men.
Women comprise a little over half of the U.S. population, but only one state, Nevada, has ever had a female-majority legislature. This year, Congress set a record with highest percentage of women representatives — but 72 percent of members are still men.
In Michigan, voters made history in 2018 by electing women to all three statewide offices — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, all Democrats. Four years later, all three were re-elected, and in the Legislature, Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, became the first female Senate Majority Leader.
About 40 percent of Michigan lawmakers serving this session are women: 15 of 38 senators are women, while there are 43 women, one nonbinary member and 64 men in the House (which is down two members after lawmakers stepped down for local roles.)
It would take 17 more women for a majority-female Legislature, a number advocates say is within reach.
“We definitely know 17 remarkable women that we can fill these seats with,” said Erin Vilardi, co-founder and CEO of the nonpartisan Vote Run Lead, a New York-based nonprofit focused on recruiting and training women candidates for office.
Women officeholders don’t just provide parity — they bring new perspectives and push for different types of legislation than their male counterparts, advocates say.
In Nevada, lawmakers and observers told The 19th News that a majority-women legislature has changed the political agenda, with lawmakers taking up policies to implement paid sick leave, expand abortion access and protections for pregnant workers, assist domestic violence and sexual assault victims and approve the Equal Rights Amendment.
Vilardi said past successes of women candidates could help beget more in Michigan.
“It's really powerful to be in a place where you can see and touch and feel the role model effect of having women in leadership,” she said.
The group touts itself as nonpartisan, but some of its most notable alumni are prominent progressives, including U.S. Reps. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, and Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota.
Creating women candidates
This month, Vote Run Lead Action, an offshoot of Vote Run Lead, hosted 150 women from around the country in Detroit for a three-day training program in what it takes to run a political campaign.
Topics included: campaign speeches, strategy, maintaining personal information, work-life balance, fundraising and more. Underpinning the training is an effort to show women the overlap between their existing skills and what it takes to be successful leaders.
“It’s demystifying some of that process, and really letting them know that they have so many transferable skills from other areas…and then surrounding them with a community of other women who will be able to fill in the gaps and maybe hold their hand and drive resources,” Vilardi said.
She said the group seeks to connect women with the support they need to overcome common hurdles that plague candidates such as sexism, fundraising and scheduling campaign events around school pick-ups and other family commitments.
One of the biggest challenges facing women running for public office, Vilardi said, is that donors on average give less to women candidates than male candidates, meaning women generally need to work harder at accumulating small-dollar donations to compete.
Once elected, women officeholders say they are susceptible sexual harassment, and anti-harassment and discrimination policies in place often can’t do much in political spheres, where the workplace could be anywhere from House and Senate chambers to a local in-district bar.
‘A bold and audacious idea’
Vote Run Lead is expanding its presence in Michigan, recently hiring a state director and assessing gaps in the women candidate pipeline the group could help fill. But they aren’t the only organizers that have sought to increase women’s political representation in the state.
The Ascend Fund, a collaborative fund with the goal of achieving gender parity in U.S. politics by 2050, in 2021 began investing in several Michigan-based organizations, including a candidate training program for Black women hosted by Mothering Justice and programming aimed at removing barriers for Asian American, LGBTQ+ and right-leaning women to run for office.
Other more overtly political organizations of both parties have also dedicated resources to women candidates in Michigan, including Emily’s List, a national group focused on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, and the Michigan Excellence in Public Service Series and Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan.
So far in Michigan, Democratic women have had more success increasing their numbers in the Legislature than Republicans, largely mirroring national trends.
In the Legislature, 74 percent of female elected officials are Democrats, and women make up a majority of the Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate.
Nationally, 65.4 percent of women lawmakers are Democrats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Elder Leslie Matthews, a Detroit resident who serves as the director of transformative faith and justice for the progressive advocacy group Michigan United, said she’s been approached several times about running for office.
Until recently, she said she’s preferred staying behind the scenes, but she’s now considering running to ensure Michigan abortion access remains in place and restrictions are repealed.
She attended this month’s hearing in Detroit and came away inspired.
“Fifty-one percent of women in office — that's a bold and audacious idea, and I'm here for that,” she said. “I really am there for that.”
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