Few mothers have served in the Michigan Legislature while raising children

At least 27 men currently serving in the Michigan Legislature are fathers of school-aged children. But there’s a big “mom gap.”

US Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

By Michigan Advance

May 10, 2024

BY ANNA LIZ NICHOLS, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—When Debbie Stabenow was serving in the Michigan House in 1980, she did something that had never been done by another legislator in the state: She gave birth during her term.

“I wasn’t trying to be the first person to do that. I just wanted to live my life as well as be in public service, and so yeah, that’s what happened,” Stabenow told the Advance in an interview this week.

The Lansing Democrat went on to become the state’s first—and only—female US senator, having first won the seat in 2000.

At least 27 men currently serving in the Michigan Legislature are fathers of school-aged children. But there’s a big “mom gap.” In the last 100 years since the first woman was elected to the Legislature, only 27 women legislators have ever been mothers of school-aged children while serving, much less given birth during their time in office, according to Michigan Capitol Commission records.

Stabenow said her predominately male colleagues didn’t know what to do with her when she was pregnant with her daughter. She recalled that her seatmate was constantly worried her water would break during session and she’d go into labor right there on the Senate floor.

“I was very active legislatively from the very beginning. And when I was working, I was speaking on the floor and one of my male colleagues said, ‘You know, when you speak it’s hard to remember that you’re pregnant.’ So I said, ‘Well, pregnancy doesn’t affect the brain or the vocal cords,’” Stabenow recalled. “It just reminded me that, you know, they were seeing everything through that prism of my being pregnant.”

That episode underscores that there have always been different expectations of mothers and fathers and women and men, said Michigan Capitol Historian Valerie Marvin.

And although about four dozen women worked in the current Michigan Capitol when it opened in 1879, the building wasn’t necessarily designed for the possibility of women serving in elected office. That’s why it wasn’t until the restoration of the Capitol that spanned from 1987 to 1992 that women’s restrooms were finally installed in the House and Senate chambers.

“Throughout history, not only in this building, but throughout American history, throughout world history, we have traditionally placed women in the private sphere. Women who cross over into the public sphere think twice as hard about their appearance in public, their profile in public, their public persona than men do, because they are still often viewed as coming from outside,” Marvin said.

Marvin recalls a conversation she had with one colleague who was around before the Capitol restoration. That colleague referred to the ground floor women’s public restroom as “The Great Equalizer” where female lawmakers and children on school field trips alike all used the same facilities.

Questions that beg solutions such as, “How do you function in the building both as a productive member of government and balance your family’s needs?” have to be talked about out in the open more, Marvin said.

“Just as we talk about in this country, striving towards a more perfect union, there’s also a sense of striving towards a more representative government and that means making sure we have the supports for everybody to be a part of that government,” Marvin said. “I’m guessing a lot of women struggle to feel they have the support to make that jump into government, so I have a lot of respect for women who do because it takes sacrifices. I think part of it is just that ongoing cultural question we have of: ‘Are we a culture that is designed to allow everyone the opportunity?’”

Liuba Grechen Shirley is the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Vote Mama Foundation, which helps mothers with young children run for office. She agreed that state governments and Capitol buildings across the country weren’t created with the idea that moms would one day serve in political offices, although fathers always have.

“There is this barrier, there’s this perception that moms don’t have the time commitment. They cannot possibly run for office. How can they serve and no one questions a dad when they step up to run,” Grechen Shirley said.

Nearly 40 years after Stabenow gave birth while she was a member of the state House, Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) became the first Michigan senator to give birth in office when she welcomed her second daughter in 2019. She gave birth to her first daughter while she served in the Michigan House in 2015.

Chang, who is Taiwanese American, had previously made history as the first Asian-American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature.

“When I ran for office, I was 30 years old, and I’d been married for a couple of years and we always planned to start a family,” Chang said. “I wasn’t going to put starting a family on hold because of the decision to run for office. … Both of those decisions had a huge impact on my life. So I wasn’t going to put one on hold for the other.”

While state of Michigan employees qualify for 12 weeks of family leave, the Legislature isn’t subject to that rule and there’s no allowance for lawmakers to vote remotely or by proxy.

But Chang got creative in order to miss the least amount of votes and still be with her newborn babies.

“This is a little bit weird, but for my first daughter, we planned so that she would be born in the summer during the summer recess and that happened,” Chang said “And my youngest daughter was also timed to be born then.”

When it comes to lactation rooms for moms to breastfeed or pump milk, there is now one family restroom on the Capitol’s ground floor, two floors down from the legislative chambers. In addition, Heritage Hall at the rear of the Capitol, which opened in 2022, has a few family restrooms, but is an even further journey from the chambers.

Chang said she had heard that another female lawmaker was stuck pumping in a nearby bathroom stall in order to remain near the chamber for votes. But she said that she had better accommodations.

“They actually made this room available above House chambers for me to be able to pump in, which was great because then it also allowed a number of House staffers, both Republican and Democrat, who also were pumping. So we all had a space to go during session when we needed to,” Chang said. “It was a bit of a scramble to be able to vote and then go pump, have little breaks in between meetings to pump and pumping on my drive in and on the way back and eating while pumping or make phone calls. … It was a little bit of a challenge.”

Luckily, Chang said, the House minority leader at the time, Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills), let her store breast milk in his mini-fridge while she was on the floor.

But no matter how much planning and preparation a person can do, Chang said the idea that moms can “have it all” and be the perfect mother and employee is problematic because no one’s perfect.

“One time when I had my baby up here in Lansing because I didn’t know it was gonna be a long day and then it ended up being a long day. … I had to actually have … a member of my team literally go take my baby to my husband halfway,” Chang said. “One of my campaigns — it was for the Senate — I wasn’t there when my daughter learned how to fly a kite. You definitely feel a bit of mom guilt. It’s not ideal, but you do have to keep going.”

Where is mom?

“A woman’s place is in the House … and the Senate,” so goes the popular feminist slogan that’s believed to have emerged in the 1960s. But even today, mothers are still being left out of the picture.

About 86% of women have given birth and are moms by age 44, according to the Pew Research Center—and that number doesn’t even include mothers who have gone through adoption or other means.

Yet as of 2022, only 23% of state legislators nationwide were moms and 5% were moms of children under the age of 18, according to a report from the Vote Mama Foundation, which also tracks data on motherhood in office.

The Michigan Legislature had just nine moms of children under 18 as of 2022, or 6%—a number that would need to double, according to the Vote Mama Foundation, in order to reach parity for representation of how many moms of young children are in the state.

The organization’s report specifies that it includes a spectrum of what motherhood looks like including foster children and formally and informally adopted children.

And the perspectives of women who became moms through adoption can’t be overlooked, said Rep. Rachelle Smit (R-Martin), who has three sons, ages 13, 17 and 19, through adoption. She also has been a foster mother to five other kids who are now grown up.

Her husband, Dave, her high school sweetheart, was diagnosed with leukemia and the pair was not able to conceive. Navigating fostering and adopting children in the years after was a lengthy process, Smit said.

But she came to the Legislature in 2022 with a lot of knowledge on how those systems need to be improved. And Smit said being a mom informs everything she does.

“The balance is definitely unique. At least it is for me, it is family first. My kids come before work even. That may not be great for everyone to hear,” Smit said. “If my own priorities in my own personal life and as a wife and a mom are not in line, I don’t feel like I can be the best at my job, either.”

Smit says she comes from the “Mama Bear Movement” where conservative women nationwide have mobilized in elections from the school board level to the presidency. They were inspired to take action after schools shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They fought against mask and vaccine requirements, slamming them as government overreach into family affairs.

And in 2022, more women on both sides of the aisle ran for statewide office than ever before across the country. In Michigan, the gubernatorial race was between two women: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who won reelection, and Republican Tudor Dixon, who ran on a parents’ rights platform like Smit.

Smit said she’s confident that Republican moms will continue to be a political force, as families are not interested in co-parenting with the government.

“We’re seeing moms just rise up and the whole Mama Bear thing is just more alive than ever. I would definitely consider myself one of those who’s just passionate about standing up and advocating for our kids,” Smit said. “Absolutely, us as parents have the rights over our children, and no one else.”

Threats against elected officials have reached a fever pitch in recent years nationally. Michigan is no stranger to various threats of violence, with Whitmer being the target of a right-wing kidnapping plot over her COVID health orders in 2020.

In October 2023, Smit offered special tribute to William and Michael Null who were acquitted in the criminal prosecution against several men charged in the failed plot to kidnap Whitmer.

Not everyone in the district is going to approve of everything their representative does, Smit said, adding that she’s also no stranger to threats.

“Absolutely, I have. I’ve experienced threats to my family, my children, but I don’t have fear with that. And maybe that’s a bad perspective to have or opinion, but I feel that I was called to be in this position and that I’m protected and I’m a believer,” Smit said. “Every day I pray for protection over my family, my kids. I can’t live in fear that because I’m in the public eye, that things will happen, but I definitely think that that could be the case.”

Rep. Jamie Thompson (R-Brownstown Twp.) said watching her own daughter struggle as a single mom has informed many of her priorities in the Legislature.

“I have a great passion for women that are single moms that really are trying to provide for their kids, that do need assistance from time to time,” Thompson said. “I’d like to navigate and look into programs that are keeping them on assistance and actually give them the tools to get that education or certificate and whatever they need, focusing on the woman, their children and them being able to provide a life for their child without necessarily always having to depend on the government.”

Earlier this year, Thompson told the Advance about her daughter, Jordan, who endured years of abuse by a boyfriend. She had worked hard in school and was accepted to a college nursing program in order to better provide for her three children. But three years ago, Jordan died at age 24 in a motorcycle crash caused by a new jealous boyfriend.

Now Thompson and her husband are the legal guardians of their three grandkids aged 6, 8 and 10.

The idea of long hours in the Legislature while having small children in the house didn’t rattle Thompson when she was considering running for office in 2022. She’d been a nurse for more than a decade and the Legislature meets three times a week, the same as three, 12-hour shifts. She’d always been able to pick up a fourth shift if she wanted, even while raising Jordan and her two brothers.

But the two-hour commute to and from the Capitol Building was taking a toll, Thompson said, and more importantly, it was interfering with homework and bedtime for her grandkids.

“I was getting home at a time that interrupted their schedule. So if my husband was helping one of them with their homework, [they’d say], ‘No, I want Grammy to help me.’ … Or the dogs would start barking and that’d wake them up,” Thompson said.

After one month, Thompson began staying in a hotel Tuesday and Wednesday night and driving back home Thursday.

But even when Grammy is away, her grandkids are well-loved, Thompson said, as her husband and her mom step up while she’s away.

“And they get to do the fun stuff with the uncles [Thompson’s sons], them being 23 and 25. Just because of how close we are after losing Jordan, they’re very dedicated to the grandkids,” Thompson said.

What we expect from moms

A couple decades before Gretchen Whitmer became the state’s second female governor, she was starting her political career in the Michigan House in 2000.

The first woman to win the governor’s mansion was another mom of school-aged children, now-US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who was elected two years later. That was the same year that Whitmer had her first daughter and lost her mother, Sherry Whitmer, to brain cancer. She had her second daughter while she was also serving in the House.

“So many Michigan moms know what that’s like—working overtime at work, home, school and everywhere in between,” Whitmer told the Advance this week.

And many female lawmakers also know what it’s like to get political blowback after they have kids. During the 2018 gubernatorial race, Whitmer faced some attacks for missing House votes when she was caring for her newborn daughter and her ailing mother. But Whitmer said all that has made her who she is today.

“I’m driven by my own experiences and my mom, who is my hero. She taught me so much, including showing up as myself and using laughter as a superpower,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer has told the story many times of her mom, who served as an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelley at a time where she was often the only female attorney in the room.

One day, her mom wore a fuchsia-colored suit to work. Before she went into court, a colleague made a comment about the appropriateness of the color. Sherry Whitmer declared, “Fuchsia is my power color” and continued doing her job.

“She showed up as herself and made space for all the women who would follow in her footsteps. Towards the end of her life, she was still always willing to share a laugh or a joke. When asked how she was feeling, she used to say, ‘super deluxe.’ That’s just who she was—someone who was always unapologetically herself,” Gov. Whitmer said. “For her and every mom in Michigan, I’ll keep fighting.”

On the eve of her reelection in 2022—which cemented her place as a top future presidential contender—Whitmer donned a fuschia pantsuit.

Motherhood can be weaponized in many ways against women running for office. One Pew Research Center survey found that 48% of respondents said having young children at home hurts a woman’s chances of being elected. Meanwhile, only 7% said it hurts a man’s electoral prospects.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) recalls one specific occasion when she was running for her first term in 2018, before her daughter Noa, now 3, was born. A woman barraged her with a line of questioning asking when she was planning on having kids and how many kids she would have.

“At the end of our conversation, she just told me, ‘I can’t vote for you because I need to know my senator is going to do their job full-time and they need to be in the office,’” McMorrow said.

Meanwhile, her opponent that year, Republican incumbent Sen. Marty Knollenberg, also owned a restaurant and an insurance agency.

In early 2021, when Noa was born, McMorrow went on maternity leave for 12 weeks, a decision she noted at the time could be used against her politically. But McMorrow ended up coasting to reelection the next year.

Two years prior, Michigan’s first African-American lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist, took a four-week parental leave from his duties in order to spend time with newborn daughter and made a point to advocate for parental leave for all parents.

“Paternity leave allows fathers of newborns to strengthen the connection with their family, and I encourage every workplace to encourage fathers and mothers to take time to embrace these special moments,” Gilchrist told the Advance at the time.

McMorrow said that stakeholders think if they can’t get a face-to-face meeting with her or if they meet with a member of her staff, her office isn’t going to do anything.

“We’ve had people flat-out refuse a meeting if it’s not with me, which doesn’t recognize that if you actually care about getting your issue moved forward, it’s probably more effective to meet with staff. But that’s not how it’s perceived,” McMorrow said.

Because McMorrow’s husband works out of state at the moment, during the week she’s effectively a single parent, trying to get her daughter to child care, commute two hours to the Capitol and meet with as many constituents as she can before Noa’s bedtime.

And for those who say, “Just bring your kid with you,” McMorrow wants people to know something about her daughter: She’s a runner.

“Some people bring their kids to the Capitol and they sit quietly at the desk and color. That would not be my kid. There will be a day that I bring her and she will just be like a terror in an adorable way, like running,” McMorrow said. “My daughter runs and she has nonstop energy, so I’m trying to be engaged in one-on-one in conversations [but] I’m trying to get my kid not to run in the street. And then people seem really upset that I’m not fully engaged in their conversation.”

And even though Noa loves walking in parades and has become proficient in introducing herself to people the way her mom does, McMorrow recognizes that not only can motherhood be weaponized to question a candidate’s competency, it can be used to intimidate women out of office.

In spring 2022, one of McMorrow’s colleagues, Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) called her a groomer in a fundraising email for backing LGBTQ+ rights efforts.

“I had friends who were worried that that language particularly was too close to QAnon and they were worried that [people] were gonna come to my house and kill me,” McMorrow said.

McMorrow responded by delivering a floor speech that received over 9 million views in 24 hours where she said she needed to stand up for the dignity of LGBTQ+ people as a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.” The Democrat also talked about her own mother taking her to volunteer in the soup kitchen on Sunday, despite a church leader saying they didn’t come to church enough.

“Every single one of us decides what happens next and how we respond to history and the world around us. … I want my daughter to know that she is loved, supported and seen for whoever she becomes. I want her to be curious, empathetic and kind,” McMorrow said. “I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”

A lot needs to change to allow moms a fair shake in elected offices, McMorrow said.

“I always think if we step back then who steps into our places and that’s something that I really struggle with. … I really worry about our future collectively if we let this type of threat push good people out of this work,” McMorrow said.

Death threats and rape threats have become regular thing in her life, McMorrow said.

“I had somebody tell me that my daughter should be killed because she has an Israeli name and indicated they knew where I lived. … I’m not sure that I’m going to stay in this work because it’s a really, really bad climate right now and I don’t ever want to put her at risk. It’s not worth it,” McMorrow said. “If it keeps up, I’m going to have to make the decision for my family and the safety of my family, and I don’t know what my future is at this point.”

The future of women in the workforce, creating opportunities for women to reach pay equality and representation in male-dominated fields hinges on women and moms being seen in places where decisions are made, Michigan Women’s Commission Executive Director Cheryl Bergman said.

“They need to be represented; we need to be represented; moms need to be represented and and seen. And if you have women who are in the public as elected officials who are moms and who are living it [that] can help push the policies that need to be enacted in order to make it normal for moms and accommodating for moms to be elected into work and to be in all the places that we should be,” Bergman said.

Michigan’s pay gap sits at where women earn almost 20 cents less per dollar than men in the state, the second Women in Michigan Workforce Report found. For women of color, the gap is wider with Black or African-American women earning 68 cents to every dollar white men earn and Hispanic or Latino women earning 67 cents to every dollar.

Part of the pay gap is women are missing from high-wage earning industries, Bergman said. As the cost of living and the cost of childcare continues to rise, moms in particular are being left out of opportunities.

Having policies like allowing campaign finance dollars to be used for childcare for Michigan candidates would go a long way in giving moms that first support on the campaign trail, Bergman said. Michigan is in the minority of states that haven’t authorized such usage of campaign dollars.

Nonetheless, progress has been made, Stabenow said. She recalls how her mostly male colleagues viewed it as odd when she would bring her children to the Capitol. But Marvin, the Capitol historian, points out it was historically the norm for male lawmakers to bring their sons and nephews to the Capitol, as they all used to be the pages on the floor.

“It was very challenging. And it was a different time where the expectation was women could not approach the job the same way men did and it would be used against her,” Stabenow said. “What I love about today is that for my own staff, people will say, ‘Can we make that 8 o’clock meeting or 9 o’clock meeting, I’ve got to drop my kids off at school or I need to leave early tonight because of the soccer game or it’s my turn on childcare.’ There’s much more flexibility, I think, and acknowledgement and support for women and men to talk about their children and to manage their children.”

Stabenow fondly recalls that one of her former chiefs of staff had a newborn and a baby bassinet was put in her office. Work is being redefined, whether that means working from home or scheduling things around when parents can drop kids off at childcare.

Having moms involved in government is so important, Stabenow said, as motherhood has informed so much her efforts to lead child abuse prevention, children’s nutrition, domestic violence prevention and other issues children face.

Almost a quarter-century ago, Stabenow surprised a lot of people by unseating an incumbent Republican to become the first woman to represent Michigan in the U.S. Senate. There’s little doubt that her status as a mother helped many politicos underestimate her.

Now at 74, she will leave the chamber at the end of her fourth term this year, saying she’s passing the torch to the next generation. But she impresses upon women and moms that they need to be involved in their government whatever way they can and that women’s voices and experiences are essential for good policymaking.

“We have to open doors. … I’ve said throughout my life that it’s great to be the first, but if that’s all there is, you’re just a token,” Stabenow said. “There has to be a second and a third and a fourth. And we have to get to a point where the story isn’t all the women. It’s about their work and their ideas and what they’re doing, not their gender.”

READ MORE: New Michigan bills to help moms with child care—so they can run for office

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

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