The chairman of the Michigan Republican Party called three top statewide elected officials “witches” in a speech last week. He said he wanted to “soften up” the women — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — so when he had GOP candidates to run against them, they’re “ready for the burning at the stake.”
Weeks earlier, the state’s Senate majority leader said of Whitmer that the party had “spanked her hard on the budget, spanked her hard on appointments.”
In December, another state senator said Whitmer was “neutering” lawmakers. He had described two women colleagues’ words as “shrill outrage” months earlier.
Michigan voters in 2018 elected women to a level of representation nearly unparalleled in U.S. states. But Michigan politics are still plagued with an old-school sexism, demonstrated in part by the word choices of fellow elected officials and politicians. Current and former women elected officials say they have been belittled and dismissed by colleagues for years.
“Misogyny does happen, subtly and blatantly,” said Democratic state Sen. Erika Geiss, one of the women described by a male lawmaker as having “shrill outrage” when she made a statement on the Senate floor last May about partisanship. “It is problematic, and it has been problematic for years.”
It’s also distracting, said Shannon Garrett, the chief strategy officer for the Michigan Women’s Commission. Garrett said the commission — a 15-member group created in 1968 and reports to the governor about policies that can help women — has had to set aside time that should be devoted to issues like child care to respond to sexist criticisms lodged at the governor.
“It’s about a woman who has power and the various ways that they’re trying to take it away,” Garrett said.
Whitmer told Bridge Michigan that the sexism in state politics is “really depressing.”
“This culture hasn’t changed,” she said. “This isn’t new.”
Whitmer added: “What is new is that there’s a bold set of women in the workforce that aren’t going to take it. They are documenting and they are speaking their truths, and that I find a great deal of inspiration in.”
The dynamics in Michigan have been extreme. Last October, authorities arrested a group of men for allegedly plotting to kidnap Whitmer because they disagreed with her coronavirus restrictions. New court documents say some of the men who face charges had amassed a stockpile of weapons.
In April 2020, then-President Donald Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” along with a series of posts criticizing restrictions around the country. Days later, protesters — some holding military-style weapons — gathered at the Michigan Capitol to watch lawmakers debate issues, including Whitmer’s power to enact rules. Outside, someone held a noose tied to a doll with dark hair like Whitmer’s.
Garrett noted that there have been tensions between political parties elsewhere over coronavirus restrictions. Whitmer, a Democrat, must work with a Republican-controlled legislature, as do the governors of states including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Sometimes there’s party infighting, like in Ohio. But Garrett feels it’s different in Michigan.
“You have a female governor at the top, telling us what can be open and what can’t be open for our own good, and that’s where we’ve seen an uptick in the gendered language,” she said.
Ron Weiser, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, apologized Saturday for his “witches” remarks made late last month.
Soraya Chemaly, the author of the 2018 book “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger,” said Weiser was using gender stereotypes ”to depict women with power as unnatural, as irrational.”
Chemaly drew a line from the man captured in a photo with his feet on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office during the Capitol insurrection to what’s happened to Whitmer.
“The thought that a woman can have this power over men is really hard for many people. It’s particularly hard for conservative men,” she said. “… because we already live in an environment in which violence against women is tolerated, I think it’s easier to then take up a violent action against a woman, even as a leader.”
Mike Shirkey, the top Republican in the state Senate, has had to apologize multiple times for inflammatory comments about Whitmer. The latest was in February, after video emerged of him inviting Whitmer “to a fistfight on the Capitol lawn” over her orders to restrict businesses because of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, he had told Republicans that Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers are “on the bat shit crazy spectrum.”
“I have many flaws,” he said in a statement after the video surfaced in February. “Being passionate coupled with an occasional lapse in restraint of tongue are at least two of them. I regret the words I chose, and I apologize for my insensitive comments.”
A spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment about Weiser and Shirkey.
Elected officials say the culture of Michigan politics has kept them from effectively doing their jobs at times. When Lisa Brown was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2008, she quickly received an email from a person who described her as “attractive” and “sexy.” The person also identified themselves as a lobbyist who would be at the state Capitol in Lansing to advocate for legislation.
“It belittled me so quickly,” Brown said. “I worked so hard to get elected. … I don’t even think I had my committee assignments yet. And for somebody to feel emboldened enough to send me an email like that says a lot.”
Brown reported the email to legislative staff but was told it could not be traced. The email was signed with only an initial. So from then on, whenever Brown spoke to a lobbyist whose name started with that letter, she recalled the email.
“Every time I was talking to one I’m like, ‘Is this the person who wrote the email?’ she said. “… It caused me to be guarded and distracted.”
In June 2012, Brown stood on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives to oppose a bill that would add regulations to abortion providers in the state. She had just asked that her colleagues not impose their religious beliefs in restricting abortion, then added: “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”
The next day, the final day of the legislative session, Brown was informed by Democratic leadership that she was prohibited from speaking on the House floor. She said no one from Republican leadership, which controlled the chamber, informed her of the decision.
“They were saying my using the word vagina was a lack of decorum, when we’re talking about women’s health,” Brown said. “The word vagina actually is in Michigan law three times. My comment then was, ‘If I can’t say it, don’t legislate it.’”
Brown later performed “The Vagina Monologues” on the steps of the state Capitol. Alongside her were Whitmer, then a state lawmaker, and hundreds of others.
“That’s always powerful, a large group of people standing together, demonstrating peacefully,” Brown, now a county clerk, said. “Assembling to say, ‘This is unacceptable.’”
Barb Byrum said she was also prohibited from speaking on the same day. Then a representative in the Michigan House, Byrum introduced an amendment to the abortion bill that would add new regulations to vasectomies. In a blog post in February, Byrum wrote that she believes Shirkey will avoid accountability for his remarks because he is term-limited and will not face voters at the ballot box.
“The misogyny is so embedded in their lives that they perhaps don’t even realize their sexist comments,” said Byrum, also now a county clerk. “And because they are surrounding themselves with similar individuals, they are not being held accountable for their words and actions.”
Brown also recalled watching a group of men — both lawmakers and lobbyists — openly talk about wanting to sleep with a woman lawmaker that they thought was attractive.
A decade later, Brown sees how her experiences then are linked to pervasive misogyny now.
“I hope that people have matured and evolved, but it doesn’t appear that there’s a population that has,” she said. “They clearly did not learn from my experience.”
When Mallory McMorrow ran for a competitive Michigan Senate seat in 2018, a large glossy mailer from the Michigan Republican Party was sent to homes showing the first-time candidate holding a drink. Her photo was imposed alongside colorful silk materials, and a message to vote “NO” was written on an image of a curling iron.
McMorrow went on to win her race and is now the youngest person in the state Senate.
“They’re attacking women in power because of who we are,” she said. “It’s never about bills I’ve introduced or what I’m trying to push for in the legislature. It is about what I look like.”
McMorrow has continued to call out wrongdoing.
In January 2020, McMorrow filed a sexual harassment complaint against Peter Lucido, a Republican lawmaker. McMorrow said Lucido touched her inappropriately and made a disparaging remark to her at the Capitol in November 2018, on the same day that lawmakers received training on how not to harass people. Lucido was also accused of telling a reporter that a group of high school boys “could have a lot of fun” with her. Lucido denied the allegations made by McMorrow. He said the reporter misunderstood his remarks. Lucido is now a county prosecutor.
A prominent state lobbyist has also been accused of wrongdoing. In recent weeks, TJ Bucholz, a consultant who has represented several Democratic candidates and issues, has been accused by women employees at his consulting firm of rampant sexual harassment. Bucholz denied some allegations, said other instances were misunderstood or he didn’t recall other situations.
Garrett with the women’s commission said the elections of Whitmer, Nessel and Benson were a huge step forward for women’s representation in Michigan politics. But it will not be enough if representation in the legislature — which is 35.8 percent women — doesn’t further increase. She hopes to see more women run for office.
“Unless and until we can get more women into the state House and the state Senate, and into leadership roles, the culture doesn’t change,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated TJ Bucholz’s profession.