How Michigan’s women lawmakers are breaking barriers

‘Our democracy works best when everybody’s experience is valued and at the table,’ says Sen Stabenow

From State Government to the Governor’s office, to six of the state’s 14 Congressional Districts and Michigan’s senior senator, Michigan is represented by some of the nation’s most prominent women.
From State Government to the Governor’s office, to six of the state’s 14 Congressional Districts and Michigan’s senior senator, Michigan is represented by some of the nation’s most prominent women.

DETROIT – A group of Michigan women hold powerful positions in Washington, D.C., representing all of us in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow was the first woman elected to the Senate from Michigan.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence is the co-chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus.

Rep. Debbie Dingell blazed trails in business and in Congress.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

When it comes to Michigan’s voices in the halls of power, many of those voices are women.

“I believe in listening to people, hearing what they really have to say,” Dingell said.

From State Government to the Governor’s office, to six of the state’s 14 Congressional Districts and Michigan’s senior senator, Michigan is represented by some of the nation’s most prominent women.

“Over half the population of the country finally have a voice,” Stabenow said.

Each have their own story to tell about the struggles of being taken seriously in Congress.

“In 2001, there were 13 women at the time, out of 100 and it was the first time ever in the history of the country that there were enough women to have one woman on every committee,” Stabenow recalled.

“There were times when I will offer a suggestion, then a man will say it, ‘That’s a great idea,’” Lawrence said. “I’ve learned to say, ‘I think it is a great idea. That’s why I said it five minutes ago.’”

They said they’ve all experienced dismissiveness that can often lead to discrimination.

“I had many moments of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination,” Dingell said. “I had some horrific moments that people are now resigning and losing jobs over and in those days, when I was really scared, I’ve got told, ‘Live with it, or leave.’”

But they didn’t leave. They leaned on each other and other women who helped pave the way.

“Senator Barbara Mikulski from Maryland. She was the dean of the Appropriations Committee when I came,” Stabenow recalled. “She used to laugh because the traditional way that women came into the Senate was as a spouse and their husband died, and then they would be elected, so she said she was the first woman that came in where some man didn’t have to die for her to get there.”

“Aretha Franklin, she said, ‘I like seeing you on TV because I like seeing a Black woman in the position of Congress speaking,’” Lawrence recalled. “She said, ‘Make sure you always know that you’re representing women everywhere.’”

And women everywhere now look to Michigan for their advice.

“What they did for me is what I have to do for future generations,” Dingell said. “We have a responsibility to each other and I take that very seriously.”

“It is kind of weird and strange,” Stabenow said. “I don’t think of myself that way. I certainly didn’t start out to be a trailblazer.”

“You have this fear of failing them, if that makes any sense,” Tlaib said. “I want to live up to the incredible power in nature that they would bring into a room.”

“I never lose sight on the fact that I’m the only African American in the Michigan delegation,” Lawrence said. “I’m a black woman. You can’t walk away from that, it’s not a burden, it is a reality that I embrace.”

An embrace that also means embracing the next group of voices, with Michigan women leading the way.

“We have incredible new opportunities for voices,” Stabenow said. “Our democracy works best when everybody’s experience is valued and at the table.”

“I’m just trying to show them,” Tlaib said. “Just move aside boys and let me show you how it’s done, you might actually learn from me.”

‘The old boys network has been alive and well for a long time,” Dingell said. “The girls network needs to support each other.”

Read more: Women’s History Month stories

Related: Stephanie Chang, first Asian American woman to serve in Michigan Legislature talks about pursuing politics


About the Authors:

Grant comes to Local 4 from Oklahoma City. He joins the news team as co-anchor of Local 4 News Today weekend mornings and is a general assignment reporter.

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.