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The article below appeared in MIRS, a publication that provides news and analysis of state government. Shannon Garrett, of SMG Strategies, and committee member for Ready to Run and VoteRunLead, was interviewed.

In state Legislature, female lawmakers gain little ground

By Lauren Gibbons

The 2015 legislative session will have three more women than last year joining its ranks, but the relative plateau of increases in female officeholders isn't much encouragement for experts or current and former politicians.

Michigan's new class of state lawmakers in the 2015-2016 legislative session is set to have 27 women in the House and four in the Senate, picking up three additional female-held seats in the lower chamber for a grand total of 31, or 20.9 percent of seats available.

The state's current count puts it at 34th in the nation for highest percent of female state legislators in 2015, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

It's a slight increase from the 2013-2014 session's ranking of 36th, which accounted for Michigan's lowest number of female legislators in decades. The highest number of female legislators in state history was in the 2009-2010 session, with 25 percent holding office.

Michigan's slight increase is consistent with the national trend. In Congress, more than 100 women were sworn in for the first time in history. But at this rate, gender parity is still several decades away, said Jean Sinzdak, the center's associate director.

"It is progress, but it feels like progress at a glacial pace," she said.

Several issues could help to explain why women still aren't adequately represented in state Legislature: distrust in the political system, lack of confidence or financial support, concerns about balancing family life or other careers.

Despite the hurdles, current lawmakers say they are making recruiting women for state office a top priority.

More than 70 women representing both parties ran for state office between the House and Senate in the 2014 elections, an encouraging sign despite losses for several Democratic women, Rep. Pam Faris (D-Clio) said.

"We've never had that many women running before," she said. "As it turned out, we didn't get that many more elected, but we will continue to hammer those numbers and get more women."

The incoming House freshmen class' female population grew by three people, many of whom were Republican. That said, the Republican caucus is still "light on women," said Rep.-elect Laura Cox (R-Livonia), something that she hopes to change during her time in the Legislature.

In the Senate, the number remained stagnant at four female legislators, with incoming Republican Margaret O'Brien (R-Portage) replacing outgoing Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing). That's after two sessions of decline — in 2006, an all-time high of 12 women served in the Senate, decreasing to nine women in 2007 and four in 2011.

"It's a really sad trend that maybe has gotten a little bit better, but I don't think the climate has changed very much." Whitmer said. "There are issues that I think women are uniquely positioned to be advocates for."

Even more troubling to her is the lack of female leadership ahead for next session. She was the only woman in the room when the leadership quadrant of both chambers met with the governor, and she doesn't have a woman to replace her.

"When that quadrant gets together, there's not going to be a single female voice in that room," she said. "That's problematic."

Maxine Berman, a former Democratic representative, argues term limits is yet another barrier. She left the state House just before term limit laws kicked in, watching from afar as the number of female representatives dipped from 31 members into the teens over several sessions.

"I expressed concerns when term limits started that it would have a deleterious effect on the number of women in the Legislature," she said. "It's creeping its way back up, but it's still far below what it was (in the House). I predicted this, and it happened."

During the years she served, Berman said there was an increase of women legislators in the House by about 1.5 people per term. By that math, she guesses there might have been 40 women in the chamber now if term limits hadn't kicked in.

"We would have kept growing," she said. "There's been a 17-year lull here of having to climb back from what we lost."

But political consultant Shannon Garrett, who studies trends of women in Michigan politics and works with organizations Ready to Run Michigan and VoteRunLead to encourage more women to run for office, sees signs of optimism.

The first Asian American woman and the first Republican Latin American woman were elected in the House, and there are now eight women of color total in that chamber, she said. And in her work throughout the state, Garrett said she's seen a greater interest among women who would consider taking the plunge into politics.

"Women are starting to say, 'I'm not seeing my experience represented — I'm not seeing my perspective,'" Garrett said. "We've tried all Democrats, we've tried all Republicans, so why not all women? Or at least half."


Shannon Garrett

Shannon Garrett