Former Michigan Gov. Albert E. Sleeper signs the states suffrage bill surrounded by suffragists on June 10, 1919.

From left, state Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), Senate staffer, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, House Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) look on as Whitmer signs the last Reproductive Health Act bill into law on Dec. 11, 2023, on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Lansing.

Legislators honor past while signaling fight for equitable rights isn’t over

LANSING, Mich., March. 1, 2024 — Today marks the beginning of March and the start of Women’s History Month. The month is named for Mars, the Roman god of war. The etymological lineage of March and it’s connection to myth is fitting for being assigned as Women’s History Month because women’s history has often looked and felt like war — strewn with battles for equal rights and unobstructed freedoms, while simultaneously being a journey of triumph and strength to expand rights and minds. From workplace discrimination to restrictions on bodily autonomy, from intersectional feminism to queer activism, women’s history is a victorious work in progress. The fight isn’t over; however, it is important to recognize the strides made in Michigan and commemorate those brave enough to stand up to advocate for continued change.

“Women are where they are today because of women like Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Purvis who came before us, those who were dedicated to finding change in a patriarchal society,” said state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing). “From the time Michigan gave married women the right to own property in 1844, it took 75 more years to get the right to vote. That is a whole other lifetime of work, advocacy and commitment to the cause of equality. These changes took time, and we are still advocating for women’s rights and freedoms. Today, it is the people who continue to speak up who are moving women’s rights and better rights for all forward. We are still fighting for equality, and this month is the month to recognize that.” 

Michigan women received the right to vote in 1919. This right would eventually open the door to women politicians. The first woman elected to the House of Representatives was Cora Reynolds Anderson. Today, the Michigan House Democratic Caucus is made up of a woman majority, and in total, the Michigan Legislature is made up of 40% women, above the national average. Not only that, but women also hold key positions in Michigan’s government, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth T. Clement. The Legislature also has its first female Senate Majority Leader, Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), and for the first time, a Black woman, state Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As women continue to take more prominent leadership roles in government and in the workforce more broadly, our society continues to combat barriers of inequality throughout.

“Black women are continuing to break barriers and make history,” said state Rep. Stephanie A. Young (D-Detroit) “This journey has not been easy alongside continued systematic racism. Women of color have overcome many obstacles, one of which is the discrimination they faced by simply wearing their natural hair. For a longtime, I used to straighten my hair with hot pressing combs and chemicals, to the detriment of my hair’s health. I should not have been made to feel a job, a promotion, etc., would be in jeopardy if I wore my natural hair. The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act to prohibit race-based hair discrimination is actually liberating legislation.”

“When my mother had me, she was expected to wear clothes that hid her belly — like it was shameful — and in the workforce, women were confined under invisible glass ceilings, because they had families and were women,” said state Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi). “Working mothers were expected to come back from maternity leave in a short amount of time, and some couldn’t afford it. Taking leave at all was frowned upon — work was still waiting, and women were seen as a burden on the workforce. We must continue to demand respect and equality on the job. Our efforts are not done. Yes, times are changing, but we must continue to advocate for a system that puts all people first — equitably.”

Recently, House Dems introduced legislation to combat maternal deaths, ensuring mothers and infants have the care they need to survive and thrive. The U.S. has the highest rate of maternal deaths compared with other high-income countries and is the only one where maternal mortality rates are rising. These maternal deaths are the highest among people of color. This legislation addresses this inequality in care as House Dems continue to address equalities throughout the state. 

Dems are also focused on eliminating harmful, abusive practices that predominantly impact women and girls. This includes banning child marriage and passing new laws to limit convicted domestic abusers from accessing firearms for a number of years after their sentences. The uneasy reality is that 1 in 4 women are survivors of domestic violence, and these laws will help keep women and survivors better protected in our communities. 

“This month is about celebrating our accomplishments and wins, while also recognizing the continued work ahead. We have come a long way from women being considered the property of their husbands, receiving the right to vote, establishing women in the workforce, to most recently enhancing Michigan’s reproductive health care rights and bodily autonomy,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), chair of the Progressive Women’s Caucus. “The work isn’t over yet — we must continue to defend the equality of all, and with the recent ruling in Alabama affecting IVF, it is ever more important that we speak out. The inequality of women is stamped into our law books and continues to bind people’s right to bodily autonomy.”

In 2023, House Dems repealed the archaic 1931 abortion ban, eliminating the criminal penalties for the medical procedure, and expanded access to reproductive health care through the Reproductive Health Act, which removes medically unnecessary and politically motivated barriers that hindered access to abortion care for individuals across Michigan. House Dems aren’t only focused on the wellbeing of women. Democrats expanded the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act so that all Michiganders can live and work in our state without the fear of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

“The fight for gender equality includes recognizing and respecting the diverse spectrum of gender identities,” said state Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing). “We must ensure equal rights, opportunities and representation for all Michiganders regardless of their gender identity in both law and practice.”

Democratic legislators are continuing to work to pass bills to balance the scales between all people. Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the efforts made by and for women. The fight to ensure women and all people receive the rights they need and deserve isn’t over, and this month is a reminder to triumph in diversity, equity and inclusion along the way.