The writer is a reporter for Capital News Service.
By Stephen Olschanski
When Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum was a state representative in 2012, she was silenced on the floor of the House for using the word vasectomy.
The same day her colleague, Lisa Brown, now Oakland County Clerk, was silenced on the floor for saying vagina. Both women were banned from speaking on the floor.
When Byrum’s mother, Dianne Byrum, was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1998, a sergeant of arms reprimanded her for allowing her son to sit in her seat for a family photo.
“That would not have happened to a male senator,” Dianne Byrum said.
Sexism was common when they served in the Legislature, the women said.
Has anything changed?
“I doubt it,” Barb Byrum said.
A litany of sexual assault and harassment allegations has rocked Congress, sports and Hollywood recently. Many of the accused men have lost their jobs, and allegations appear almost daily. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by women who serve or have served in the state Legislature.
In state legislatures nationwide the number of women lag men nearly 4 to 1. Michigan is just below the national average with 23.6 percent of state lawmakers who are female, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona leads the nation with a legislature that is 40 percent female.
Thirty-one of the 110 Michigan House districts are represented by women. Four of the 38 Senate districts have female senators
That’s hardly progress, according to women who serve today.
“In 1921 we had one woman state senator and today we have four,” said Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage. ”While some might say, ‘well, that’s an increase of 400 percent,’ I would say we barely moved the bar.
“When our population is much more than 10 percent, why do we have only 10 percent of the senators as women?”
Women who are former lawmakers say sexism in the Legislature has prevailed for a long time.
Lana Pollack, current chair of the International Joint Commission, served three terms in the Legislature beginning in 1983. During two of her terms she was the only Democratic woman senator.
“I walked into many rooms for many years where I was the only woman in the room,” Pollack said.
And men noticed. “It was as if I ignored a sign on the door that said ‘men only’ and somehow I missed that signal,” she said.
Sexism came in two forms. The first was when men talked over her and degraded her ideas, ideas that were acceptable for them to talk about.
“The other kind, and there was plenty of that, is just lewdness and that kind of sexuality that is totally inappropriate,” Pollack said. “It’s assaultive verbally or assaultive physically.
“The physical assault, the worst of it, was somebody planting a wet kiss on my mouth as a total gross surprise.”
It wasn’t just Senate colleagues who were sexist, she said.
“It was from other lobbyists, labor leaders, civil servants, Gov. (James) Blanchard’s cabinet,” Pollack said. “I’m not painting a wide brush, but what I’m trying to say is there were a lot of dark lights everywhere, but a lot of bright lights, too.”
It continues today, O’Brien said.
“I can only speak for the state Capitol, but sometimes I feel like I’m in a boys’ locker room,” O’Brien said. “But I grew up with brothers so usually I can defend myself pretty well, but the sexual harassment stuff threw me for a loop.”
Beyond assault and harassment, women legislators say they have to deal with working in a role still viewed as untraditional for a woman by male legislators.
Women were quicker to be gaveled down for minor lapses in decorum during her time in the legislature, Dianne Byrum said.
Barb Byrum said she was told she was being a child and needed to be placed in timeout like one of her kids when she spoke out on the floor.
Often the denigration of women legislators is a bipartisan slam at their roles as mothers, O’Brien said.
“The assumption is, if a woman has kids at home, maybe we need to think twice about that,” O’Brien said. “And that’s not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. That’s just a societal issue where we need to break out of some stereotypes.”
Women lawmakers resent being pigeonholed, and that keeps some from running for election, she said.
“Because apparently women are only supposed to care about education and healthcare and men can care about everything and women can only think one way on certain topics,” O’Brien said. “That actually keeps women from running for office.”
Women lawmakers are often underestimated, even when they hold leadership positions, said Dianne Byrum, the first-ever female Democratic House Leader.
“Women were always underestimated,” she said. “They had to be harder workers but women kind of knew that going in,”
She was often challenged by the previous House leader, Kwame Kilpatrick, who as mayor of Detroit would show up in Lansing with an entourage and acted like he was still leader, she said.
“It was a constant challenge of authority.”
Pollack said serving is a balancing act. “It’s tough because people depend on you, yet other people are trying to undermine you.”
How could things improve?
It starts with more dialogue and a higher standard of behavior in the Legislature, O’Brien said.
It’s not just fellow legislators she’s talking to but also staff members who have faced sexism.
“I’m trying to do a lot of listening, talking to staff in casual conversations because there is a lot of them who don’t feel comfortable. And so they’re not willing to share information. Is there a depth of a problem? I don’t know.”
More women elected to office would help, Dianne Byrum said. They bring a different perspective and tend to be more collaborative.
Pollack agrees: “I’d like to see more women on the board of directors and more women in the cabinet and more women bosses. In both parties.”