Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman

In response to the latest in a long line of misogynist scandals in the Legislature, a group called Michigan Witches Against Patriarchy is protesting at the Capitol Wednesday.

WHITE LAKE, Mich.—Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser is interested in re-enacting the Salem witch trials in Lansing. 

He told the North Oakland Republican Club that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Attorney General Dana Nessel should be burned at the stake. The Detroit News published video of the March 25 event. 

While he has since apologized for his remark, at the time he seemed keen on it being picked up by the media. 

“Our job now is to soften up those three witches and make sure that when we have good candidates to run against them, that they are ready for the burning at the stake,” Weiser said. “And maybe, the press heard that, too.”

Certainly Michiganders did. Wednesday evening, a group calling themselves Michigan Witches Against Patriarchy will gather on the lawn of the Capitol building, protesting both this current scandal and the long history of scandals around Lansing misogyny. Embracing the title, women in Michigan are making their voices heard.

But Weiser’s desire to have media attention on his remarks is particularly alarming considering the thwarted attempt on Gov. Whitmer’s life last fall, and armed protesters at Secretary Benson’s home in December, not to mention the incident nearly one year ago where gunmen stormed Michigan’s capitol in an eerie foreshadowing of the attempted coup in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6.

Weiser and the Michigan Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment.

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Sexism Is Deep-Rooted in Michigan Politics

Marital rape is illegal in Michigan, with a glaring exception. Having sex with a spouse without their consent while thay are mentally incapacitated is perfectly legal in Michigan. And the state includes being drugged without a person’s consent as being mentally incapacatiated. 

State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) has tried to close that loophole, and Republicans have prevented her from doing so. 

“This is not an area where two consenting adults went out to the bar and they both may have had too much to drink, the law is very clear,” Pohutsky told The ‘Gander last fall. “This is in cases where you drug someone without their consent, and if you are married to that person it is legal to rape them.”

Lansing Republicans are still holding that effort back. Just like they still are holding back efforts to restore paid family leave, earned paid sick leave and other policies for working families that Michiganders tried to pass at the ballot box in 2018 but were gutted by the Republican legislature. 

Sexism is hardly a new element to the fights between the Michigan Republican Party and the state’s leadership. In fact, it played a central role in the Legislature’s unwillingness to allocate federal money for COVID-19 relief that had been sent Michigan’s way in December. 

READ MORE: Michigan Republicans Have Held Back COVID Relief for Two Weeks

This was underscored in February by remarks from state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake), in which he touted “spanking” the governor by refusing to disburse those funds.

“We spanked her hard on the budget,” he said. “Spanked her hard on appointments. We did everything we could constitutionally do.”

Video of Michigan’s government proceedings later that week appears to show Shirkey apologizing (to Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, not Gov. Whitmer) for his tone in that video, but not the content of his remarks, adding that he “doesn’t back down easily.”

Shirkey has declined further comment.

His comment and non-apology come as no surprise, as state Pohutsky  pointed out in the Detroit Free Press shortly thereafter, this sort of behavior is age-old and will likely never change. 

“Most of us would like to pretend this sort of behavior is rare. But that argument doesn’t hold water when someone who is supposed to be a leader and a role model exhibits it almost daily,” Pohutsky wrote. “Sen. Shirkey is a caricature of a ‘man’s man,’ a callback to a time when it was assumed the highest compliment you could give a woman, even if she’d just delivered her first mid-pandemic State of the State, was to say she looked delightful.”

And Weiser’s comment is a callback to a time when women were burned at the stake. But the sexism against Michigan’s leadership spreads farther than Weiser and Shirkey. 

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Pohutsky pointed out in her piece that major instances of sexism among Michigan Republicans sparking controversy have become a near-monthly occurrence in Lansing, often met with a moment of press attention before fading without consequence. And that, in turn, means the patterns continue from spanking to burning at the stake. 

The behavior isn’t changing, she wrote, so voters have to demand change. 

“I stand by my assertion that Sen. Shirkey will never learn,” she wrote. “He needs to be abandoned like the relic he is. He has repeatedly been rewarded with re-election and leadership positions that his behavior should disqualify him from. Sen. Shirkey needs to be stripped of his leadership title immediately. If he insists on clinging to misogynistic tropes and living in the past, then it is best if we leave him there.”

Embracing the Moniker

True to form, at least one of Michigan’s leaders leaned into the “witch” label, finding empowerment and humor in the criticism.

“Witches who magically decrease Covid spread, increase voter turnout and hold sexual predators accountable without any help from the legislature?” Nessel asked on Twitter. “Sign me up for that coven.”

In truth, this isn’t a new approach either. Nessel’s embrace of the witch label comes almost precisely a year after then-President Donald Trump dismissed Gov. Whitmer as “the woman in Michigan,” which Gov. Whitmer famously embraced with a “That Woman from Michigan” t-shirt on The Daily Show shortly thereafter. 

“Those Women from Michigan” has become something of a solidarity statement, used both to describe Michigan’s slate of elected women leaders and Michigan women themselves. Ms. Magazine even listed “Those Women” among the top feminists of 2020.

And the current “witches” attack is ready-made for the same kind of feminist solidarity. In recent years, the image of witches has been adopted by feminists and undergone rehabilitation. Far from conveying a vague sense of evil, a growing public sentiment exists of the witch as a symbol of power and strength. 

Those Witches From Michigan

Unfortunate conflation with neopaganism and wicca—which are very different from the witch iconography both Weiser and Nessel invoked—does come with problems of its own. But a rising and largely positive depiction of witches as women asserting themselves and exercising power and influence on the world has obvious appeal. To those who have fought to claim that agency in Michigan politics like Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson, this new witch icon fits well. 

Ultimately, if the witch is a symbol of a wise woman, claiming agency and authority rightfully hers, there are probably no better candidates for modern witches than Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson. 

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Whitmer has navigated Michigan through a crisis unlike anything seen in the last hundred years, racking up far more successes than failures—guiding Michigan through the pandemic, ensuring out-of-work Michiganders were supported and addressing failures of the state’s unemployment system, studying food scarcity in Michigan, and fighting both parties in Washington to get pandemic resources for Michigan—and rushing her life to do so, and for it became a pop-political icon.

Benson laid the groundwork for and oversaw broken voter turnout records not once but three times during a crisis that made in-person voting dangerous to public health and well-being while tackling attempts to discourage, dissuade, and outright lie to Michigan voters.

Nessel has pursued justice for everyone from survivors of the Flint Water Crisis to survivors of college sexual assault, using the power of Michigan’s legal system to help Michiganders despite living at the intersection of sexism and homophobia. 

And if that’s what it is to be a witch in 2021, fetch my broom.