The Resistance is Female: A Conversation with Gov. Jennifer Granholm

 /  June 16, 2017, 3:51 p.m.


In 2002, Governor Jennifer Granholm became the first woman to be elected as governor of Michigan. She won her second election in 2006 with the largest number of votes ever cast for governor in the state. Prior to her time in the governor’s office, Granholm was Michigan’s attorney general from 1998 to 2002. After leaving public office, she began teaching courses in law and public policy at UC Berkeley. Granholm has remained active in the political scene, serving as a senior contributor to CNN and as a surrogate and senior partner on jobs and energy policy on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She is also the co-author of the political bestseller, A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future. As Granholm finishes up her time as a spring fellow at the Institute of Politics, she sat down with the Gate to discuss the realities of being politically active and engaged during the Trump era.

The Gate: Since Trump was elected, more and more women have become interested in running for office. Some have already even taken that step, like Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. What advice would you offer to them, and what challenges do you think they’ll face not only as women running for office, but as women running for office during the Trump era?

Granholm: In fact, Gretchen and Stacey are both friends of mine, and I’ve talked to them both a lot about their races. They’re different because Georgia is obviously different than Michigan, but I do think that even though we are in 2017, there’s still a lot of residual unspoken sexism. So the question is, how do women who are seeking a position deal with that, especially if they’re a first, like Stacey Abrams, who would be a first, first African-American woman certainly. And she’s got a double burden or a triple burden—a woman of color does. So the old adage is still true, the thing that Ann Richards used to say, that women have to do everything that men do like Ginger Rogers did, did it backwards and in high heels. I always tell women to make sure that before you launch anything, you have a solid foundation of experience and credentials, so that it’s unassailable.

I think that those two women do. There are a lot of young women who are considering running, which is fantastic, this unleashing of this millennial energy. And I think using the anger that’s out there in the electorate, for example on issues like Planned Parenthood and everything, that’s obviously, for women, very powerful. But also recognizing that there are broad issues that speak to men and women, which are the economy and jobs, and framing a lot of what have been seen as traditionally women’s issues as economic issues. Birth control doesn’t just affect women, it affects men, and it’s an economic issue for families. With childcare, it is an economic issue for families, men should care about it as much as women, so I think that the issues that have traditionally been “women’s issues” are really “family issues.” Everybody’s family has these issues, everybody needs help making sure that the kids are taken care of while they go to work. Women who are running for office need to make sure that they are credentialed in a way that takes away the questions that people might have about whether they’re “qualified.”

All that being said, we had the most qualified person to ever run for office, run for president, and she lost to, in my opinion, someone who is totally unqualified and damaging to the nation. I’m sure there was a residual number of people who didn’t vote for her because she’s a woman, but I also think that there were other issues. Could a woman win for president of the United States? Yeah, I totally think that they can, but it is true that women have to be twice as careful. There’s a great woman named Barbara Lee who has this book that she put out when I was running for governor called Keys to the Governor’s Office, and it had specific pieces of advice through a lot of research on what women should or should not do, what people still do or do not believe about women. She has updated it every year since I ran, and a lot of the advice is still really solid—everything from what you wear, how you present yourself, how you credential yourself, how you speak, all of those things that I think women have to pay more attention to than guys. I hope that one day we don’t ever have to have this conversation.

Gate: Looking at elections, many people are looking toward the 2020 presidential election to offer a reprieve from President Trump. Do you see any women emerging in that fight, Republican, Democrat, or independent?

Granholm: Unfortunately Kirsten Gillibrand has said she that she’s not going to run in 2020, but one person whom I love dearly is Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota. She wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Senator Next Door. She is totally down-to-earth, not fancy, funny as all get-out, smart as all get-out, she’s not threatening. In the way that she’s very approachable, she’s like your smart, kickass sister, and that is a really interesting profile. And there are a lot of good men who are running who are feminists, men who would be very strong on women’s issues. But who knows what will happen? I don’t know that it has to be a woman who wins—I think that it can be a man who is very sensitive to racial and gender issues, and I hope that we get somebody like that.

Gate: There are a few women the White House who hold high positions, including Kellyanne Conway, Betsy DeVos, and Ivanka Trump. Multiple people have commented on the women in particular being complicit in or accommodating of Trump’s past history and current policies regarding women. What role do you think the women in Trump’s White House currently play in shaping his administration, and what role do you think they should play?

Granholm: They’re just utterly quiet. Ivanka comes closest because she’s a family member and you can’t deny her access to her dad, and she’s in a very awkward position—she’s not going to publicly come out and castigate her father. She tries to do stuff behind the scenes. I think her role as a daughter is a bit different.

Betsy DeVos, Kellyanne Conway … Betsy DeVos is never going to be a help on women’s issues because she’s just anti-a lot of government involvement in anything, and that includes reproductive issues. She’s utterly anti-choice, so she’s not going to be [helpful].  Unfortunately, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to believe that having women at the table is important. If you look at all of the pictures of his inner circle, they’re all white men. They don’t believe that having people of color at the table, other than Omarosa Manigault, is important, and of course she’s marginalized when it comes to the close-circle decisions. The picture where they put out the budget that cut the funding for Planned Parenthood—I think it’s more than appalling, it’s immoral, that there is not a greater outreach to half of the population, that there’s not a recognition that if you’re going to legislate something that involves women, you should have their input. Obviously, talking about rationality and Trump in the same sentence is an oxymoron anyway.

Gate: While the Women’s March was a very prominent display of grass-roots efforts led by women to protest the Trump administration, there have been numerous actions by elected female officials to do so as well. For example, it was four women judges who ordered the temporary stays of Trump’s travel ban, female Democratic senators wore white at his address to Congress, and Sally Yates was the one who took a stand in the Department of Justice to act against the executive order regarding the travel ban on Muslims. What responsibilities come along with opposing the President in such a public manner while also being a woman, and what can everyday women do to help that effort?

Granholm: Making sure that women ourselves are inclusive. So that to be a feminist is not to be a white feminist, but to be a feminist for all women, to really understand these economic issues for all women. Women have to understand that we have to be inclusive in the resistance, and making sure that all of our sisters are part of this, and that we are really listening to ourselves. Step one is to make sure that we are sending inclusive messaging ourselves. I think that in 2018, I believe there will be a raft of women who are running for office. And the fact that there were nine hundred women in the last cycle at this time who were making inquiries to Emily’s List about support and in the same time in this cycle there are eleven thousand women asking, that is so encouraging to me. When I was elected governor, we had eight women governors, and now we’re down to four—we’ve gone backwards. When I was first elected, 28 percent of seats in state houses were occupied by women, and it’s now gone to 23 percent.

So we’ve gone backwards, and so my hope is that millennials will start to move the ball in the right direction and even us up. I hope that this generation is a lot less bound by some of the stuff that their parents’ generation had. Finding good feminist men to support women is really important as well, and supporting men who are proud to be feminists is important. So I’m hopeful that this generation and all of this energy, will result, in 2018, and a good number more women in Congress, and lots more women at the state level, whether it’s governors or taking back some of the Senate and House seats on the state level.

I so strongly encourage young women to run for office. The old statistics are that if a woman’s name is on the ballot for judge, she’s going to be much more likely to be elected than a male will be. People trust women a lot. And so, young women who are earnest and who work and are going door-to-door and who demonstrate their intelligence and that they really want to work for people, people trust that. I think that there is a moment here for this generation to start helping rebalance the nation, and I’m really encouraged by the energy that’s out there about it.

Gate: There has been a real criticism of the idea of “identity politics” and what it has done to the Democratic Party and American politics in general. The actual meaning of the term is disputed and debated by numerous groups. Some argue that it places the concerns of marginalized groups above the traditional majority in a way that excludes the majority groups (e.g. cisgender straight white males). On the other hand, many argue that it has created a much-needed platform for people who have been systematically left out of the political narrative, such as people of color and women. How do you define “identity politics,” and do you think it helps or hinders political campaigns and the American political system at large?

Granholm: Politics is all about addition. Democrats, we have a big tent, as people keep saying, and that means that we want to be about the word “all,” right? So we want to embrace the notion of the Statue of Liberty—we want to say that whether you were brought here, your people were brought here on the Amistad, or your people crossed the border via Arizona, or whether they came here on American Airlines, we want to embrace the diversity. That is American exceptionalism. Name another country—well, Canada is pretty diverse, too—that really is born of people who came to this country or were brought to this country, where leaders are born of commoners and not of kings. It’s an amazing thing, it’s an amazing idea. And so the fact that you have a leader now who is causing us to be fearful, or to close down our borders, or to shrink out of fear of the “other,” that is the jump-off point for us to define ourselves. We are not afraid, we are not afraid to be opening and welcoming—that is what this country is about, that is what it means to be an American. Redefining patriotism in a way that is inclusive, that represents all that America was born of, is really important for us in terms of messaging—to say that we are all part of this. And obviously if you are Native American, you were here first, but everybody else somehow was either brought here or came here, so we have to define that in a positive way and embrace that. That is identity politics.

Regarding LGBT rights, for example, we should be talking about this issue of freedom. The Republicans keep talking about freedom, but they want to decide who we love? That’s not freedom. We [Democrats] are the true party of freedom. You want to tell me what I’m going to do with my reproductive decisions, the most intimate decisions that a woman can make? That’s not freedom—you’re putting me in prison. So we should be taking back the word “freedom” in a way that really is inclusive in saying that. I think that the notion of identity politics is great because we identify with a broad coalition, a broad tapestry of people, and we welcome everyone, and we define “family” in a broad way, and this is all part of our family. I think we should be embracing the differences within our party, and I hope that those differences don’t cause us to shoot one another—that we can point the arrows outward rather than creating a circular firing squad.

Some people are suggesting that identity politics excludes trying to go after the blue-collar worker, who may be white or black or a she, but I think that that is wrong. I think that we are about addition, and so if brother John loses his job through no fault of his own, he’s part of our coalition. We want to include those blue-collar workers as well, and there are a lot of people of color in that blue-collar class who want to make sure that they are included as well, so our policies have to speak broadly to everybody who feels that they have been left behind. Trump doesn’t really speak for the forgotten American.

Gate: What strategy, then, do you think the DNC should take in engaging different groups of people, and more so, do you think there should be any particular change in how they approach or engage women?

Granholm: The DNC has a unity commission that has just started to meet that is a really diverse coalition, that is representative of all of the strands of the Democratic Party that we are. And I fully expect that there is going to be a very aggressive effort to braid all of these strands together—the Bernie strands, the Hillary strands, people from Black Lives Matter, all of those who are feeling like we have sliced our party into little pieces. I believe that exigency, the circumstance of having Trump in the White House will necessitate that we band together in a united front to beat him in 2020.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Eleanor Khirallah


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