LANSING, Mich. – With the 98th Legislature now three months into session, Southwest Michigan is in the unique position of having two of only four women senators serving them in the upper chamber of the state Capitol.
While Michigan is home to more than 5 million females who make up slightly more than half of our state’s population, comparatively, in the state Legislature, a drastically disproportionate number of women serve in the House and Senate. Of the 148 legislative seats (38 in the Senate and 110 in the House), only 28 women currently serve (four in the Senate and 24 in the House).
Senator Margaret O’Brien, who is the first woman from Portage to be elected to the state Legislature, represents the 20th District, which encompasses Kalamazoo County. She was chosen by her peers to serve in a leadership position as the Senate’s Assistant President Pro Tempore, meaning she helps oversee and run session.
O’Brien, who previously served two terms in the state House, was also appointed as chairwoman of the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Homeland Security Committee and as vice chair of the Banking and Financial Services Committee.
For O’Brien, the challenge of being a woman with a highly visible leadership role in a male-dominated profession is one not taken lightly, both from the perspective of someone who represents an underrepresented population and as a role model for future generations.
“There is a sense of pride and accomplishment to be one of only three Republican women serving in the Senate,” O’Brien said. “But, at the same time, you wonder, why aren’t there more women serving in elected office? There is a greater sense of responsibility to live up to the expectations set by those strong women leaders who came before me, like former Portage Mayor Betty Lee Ongley, and to help forge the path for future generations of women. That really drives me to work harder every single day.”
Senator Tonya Schuitmaker is blazing a similar trail. From Antwerp Township, Schuitmaker, who is now in her second term, is the first woman from both Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties to be elected to the state Senate. In 2010, she was chosen by her caucus to serve as the President Pro Tempore, only the second woman in Michigan’s history to hold this position. She continues in this leadership role this term, which is a highly visible position where she holds the gavel and presides over the Senate during session.
Schuitmaker, who previously served three terms in the state House, was also appointed to serve as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and as vice-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Like O’Brien, Schuitmaker cherishes the opportunity to serve and the responsibility to leave behind something that’s better than when she arrived.
“I feel like I am standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Schuitmaker. “Every day I am reminded of the women who have come before me when I see the painting of Senator Eva McCall Hamilton hanging in the Senate chamber. And when I look into the eyes of my daughter every morning, I am reminded of the solemn obligation I have to help make Michigan a better place with more opportunities for women. Like Senator O’Brien, I strive to work harder because what we do matters, not just for today, but for generations to come.”
There was a poignant moment, O’Brien said, during the recent Super Bowl that hit home for her and put in to perspective the role she has as a leading woman at the state Capitol. The moment had nothing to do with the action on the field but with one of the advertisements that aired late in the game. It was the “like a girl” ad, which featured people being asked what it is like to perform certain activities like a girl.
What’s it like to throw like a girl? How does a girl run? Show me what it looks like to fight like a girl, and so on. The subjects, who were mostly older or male or both, predictably acted out the common public perception of how a girl would perform those activities. But when the same questions were asked of young girls, the results were powerful. What viewers saw were strong, determined girls who believed in themselves and their abilities, unbounded by societal influence or stereotypes.
O’Brien recalls watching that with her family and feeling moved by the ad’s message, both as a mother of a young son and daughter, but also as a woman serving in the Legislature.
“It’s about telling the next generation that it’s okay to be a girl – that you can own who you are,” O’Brien said. “Women should not feel they have to adapt or change to have a career. You can be strong. You can be confident. You can be a woman. Just be yourself.”