LANSING — There are 148 members of the Legislature. Just 34 are women. Only one is in a leadership position.
“You’re not getting kind of that balance between who your representatives are and who your constituents are,” said Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, the House minority floorleader. “That is a problem, and I think that’s what skews the issues that get talked about.”
The House includes 15 Democratic and 15 Republican women, while four women — three Republicans and one Democrat — are in the Senate. Much of the diversity in both of gender and race, comes from the southeastern region of the state.
As imbalanced as gender representation is in Michigan, policy can be even more male-dominated.
Disparities within the Legislature make it difficult for some bills to garner consideration, according to members of the Michigan Progressive Women’s Caucus, an organization of female liberal lawmakers. When pay equity bills have been proposed in recent years, for instance, they failed again and again.
“Every April, we put forth a package of bills to try to close that gap and to basically require companies to be more open and transparent with their salary information,” said Rep. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, vice chair of the Progressive Women’s Caucus. “Many times during the session, we have something with reproductive health or access to health care services. Those come up every session.”
Greig is the only woman one of many floor leadership positions, and the gender gap within Michigan’s Capitol has not gone unnoticed.
Members of the Progressive Women’s Caucus say bills dealing with women’s issues, and matters of perceived social justice are often disregarded.
When on the floor, these bills are often assigned to committees that they have no chance of passing through, according to women legislators. Opposing bills receive the opposite treatment.
“Last term, in the Criminal Justice Committee, there are eight members — five Republicans, all men, and three Democrats, all women,” said Rep. Stephanie Chang,D-Detroit, the caucus chair. “Almost all of the bills that were anti-women’s health choices went to Criminal Justice.”
“They seem for a lot of our members like common sense, like solutions to everyday issues,” Chang said. “We know that a lot of these issues are uphill battles, especially given the makeup of the Legislature, but it’s really important to keep hammering away.”
Within the Capitol, members of the Progressive Women’s Council say a lack of acknowledgement stalls progress on women’s issues. They think these issues tend to align more with the ideology of Democratic Party.
“I don’t know if there’s a single Democrat who wouldn’t agree on equal pay,” Chang said. “I know there’s a handful of Republicans who may agree, but might not sign their name or be vocal about it. So as far as coalitions, there’s the traditional stakeholders. That doesn’t help move the numbers.
While Democrats in office are overwhelmingly outnumbered, the issue goes deeper than parties. In recent sessions, sexual assault matters have been championed by both sides, gaining sweeping support of male lawmakers as well.
Greig said she recognizes the need of more women in office when it comes to coalition building. Although there is frequent fragmentation among the 34 female legislators, commonalities emerge that lead to more collaboration.
Agreement between conservative and liberal women on an issue can lead male colleagues to consider that issue, Greig said. By bringing otherwise-ignored subjects to light, women in both parties can create unanimously supported but often overlooked legislation, as was the case last year with the passage of a salvo of domestic violence packages.
“If you can actually build a coalition and bring parties that you wouldn’t normally expect, that greatly strengthens the potential for the bill,” Greig said.
The Progressive Women’s Caucus draws encouragement from what its members consider a progressive voting base.
A study by Denno Research, a public opinion company in East Lansing, of 600 Michiganders found that 86 percent supported earned paid sick leave. The issue would disproportionately aid women.
Despite prior stagnation of such bills in committees, Democratic women lawmakers vow to keep their issues on the docket. Equal pay, women’s health, recognition of supportive businesses and sick leave will all be put forth again this spring.
“I think with a lot of the issues, the public is on our side,” Chang said. “But unfortunately, the Legislature doesn’t always reflect where we are as a people. So we’re kind of playing catch-up right now.”
A large reason for the discrepancy between the numbers of men and women in the Capitol is the disparity between male and female candidates, according to Greig. Here, there is an indication that the gap could begin to close.
“What we’re seeing out there, especially after the presidential election, is a reawakening of political responsibility — that we are connected to our government,” Greig said. “And one way to strengthen that connection is to run for office.”
The Democratic Party of Michigan hopes to rally more momentum on this front. Emerge Michigan, an organization that promotes political candidacy for women, trains and identifies female Democratic candidates.
Greig said that with the status quo, only so much can change. With a new face for the Legislature, more favorable motions could be made.
“When women run, they win at the same rates as men, so it is a numbers game,” Greig said.
For the time being, the proportion of women lawmakers means more than numbers to some. It is the manifestation of lingering inequality.
Chang said that a colleague handed her an article indicating that “equal pay was a made-up issue” in attempt to discredit the caucus agenda.
According to Census data, women make 78 cents yearly, 82 cents weekly and 87 cents hourly for each dollar their male counterparts make. The data do not explain the variation between genders and between types of compensation.
Chang said increasing polarization within political media outlets has revved up discord and one-sidedness, heightening animosity between the two parties. Meanwhile, sexism persists in the view of Geiss.
“I also think there’s a piece of, ‘You’re here and that’s great. I would never let my wife run for office,’” Geiss said. “There’s still a bit of patriarchy.”
— ISAAC CONSTANS, Capital News Service