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Not long after Lou Anna Simon became Michigan State University’s first female president in 2005, she met a farmer who was frank with her: He wasn’t so sure about a female college president. For that matter, he wasn’t sure about a female governor either.

Simon, a no-nonsense administrator who also was MSU’s first female provost, remembers answering in the only way she could.

“I told him he’d be really surprised,” Simon said. “All I could tell him was that I was I going to do the best I could for Michigan State. That’s all I could commit to.”

Nearly 100 years after winning the right to vote, women have come a long way in nearly every area of the public and private sectors. Now in place everywhere from city councils to the chief executive’s office at General Motors, there’s only one goal that remains: the Oval Office.

As Hillary Clinton made history this week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – shattering the glass ceiling and becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major party – several Michigan female trailblazers are looking back on their own paths as pioneers.

Some say they never focused on their gender or let that shape their decision-making, though studies show female lawmakers are more attentive to issues that affect women, such as child care and family. Others acknowledge it was tough and the expectations were higher as women.

Simon, who makes it clear higher education is much different than elected office, says being the first in a field requires resiliency.

“You have to feel really comfortable in your own skin and what you’re about,” she said.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s first female governor, says female pioneers often aren’t focused on gender issues as much as “the people who are following you, the people who are supporting you.”

“What you’re focused on is, ‘What do the people need? How can I fix the problem?’” said Granholm, 57, now an energy adviser for Clinton, in an interview with The Detroit News. “And I think she (Clinton) has been like that.”

Gender a central issue

But even if Clinton wanted to distance herself from the gender issue during the campaign, Liette Gidlow, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University who has written about women’s voting including a book about the 2008 presidential election, says it’s central to it for various reasons.

“There’s still a dilemma about whether women and leadership can even really be said in the same sentence,” Gidlow said. “There’s this tension between femaleness and leadership that has longstanding historical roots. And because of that we live in a culture that is still uneasy with women giving orders to men, with women giving orders that men have to comply with.”

Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, argues Hillary Clinton had to prove her toughness more during the 2008 campaign than this one.

Working with her strategist Mark Penn, Clinton’s 2008 campaign “was largely focused on establishing (Clinton’s) toughness and her ability to be commander in chief,” Carroll said. “It was about strength. ... This time around she doesn’t have those kinds of problems. No one doubts she’s qualified, and no one doubts she’s tough.”

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, there are now 104 female members of Congress, which represents about 19.4 percent of the 535 seats. In Michigan, women make up nearly 21 percent of the state Legislature, which ranks the state 34th in the nation..

Carroll said women often don’t run for elected office until they’re “hyper-qualified” while men will run even if they’re underqualified. Voters often perceive female politicians or candidates as more honest or gentle, which can help or hurt depending on the situation, Carroll says.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, Michigan’s first female U.S. senator, got into politics after a fight to save a local nursing home in her hometown, Clare. When she was elected to the Michigan House in the 1970s, there were only six female lawmakers, no women in the state Senate and no women elected statewide.

“It was tough, and I know Hillary’s had some of the same experience of having to work twice as hard and be twice as prepared, and having different expectations on you when you’re in the room,” said Stabenow, 66. “Women have that in business as well and in other professions.”

By the time Stabenow was elected in 1996 and to the Senate in 2000, she was part of a wave of women coming to Congress.

“The year I came into the Senate with Hillary was the first time in the history of our country when we had enough women to have one woman on every committee in the U.S. Senate,” Stabenow said. “It was the first time we had a woman’s voice, experience, values represented on every committee in the U.S. Senate.”

‘Can you lead?’

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who was Southfield’s first female and African-American mayor, says women pioneers often aren’t given the latitude to make mistakes or fail like men.

“We are expected to keep it together mentally and physically,” Lawrence said the Democratic National Convention. “When I was on the campaign trail, there were some concerns about if I could lead the community. ‘We are a business community.’ The questions were, ‘Can you lead? Can you handle that?’”

Lawrence, 61, says support systems are critical for women pioneers, especially those juggling careers and family.

“You have to have a support system,” Lawrence said. “... There’s also a decent amount of guilt as women. I jokingly talk about when I had the normal business life, I’d come home every day and cook a three-course meal for my husband and children. And that’s one of my husband’s biggest complaints. He misses the meals.”

For her part, Simon grew up in Indiana in the 1950s, before the women’s rights movement, before there were even organized sports for girls. The first member of her family to go to college, she credits her parents and grandparents, who lived with them for a while, with giving her the mindset that there were no limits just because she was a girl.

“They had to be extraordinarily courageous to permit that kind of space for me,” Simon said.

Going to high school in the 1960s, Simon remembers chafing at having to take a home economics course where she had to make an apron. She wanted to take an electronics class.

Her father, a World War II veteran, told her that “some things you have to do even if you’re not very interested,” advice that stayed with her.

“His philosophy — which I probably adopted — is that the world isn’t fair, but that unfairness shouldn’t define you,” Simon said.

Lawrence, meanwhile, says female pioneers are paving the path for those who will follow them.

“You have to be extremely strong,” she said. “You don’t let stereotypes define you and you walk into a room knowing they’re there. I still sit at tables where I’m the only woman there – still. But I plant my feet, pull my shoulders back, because I know that when you’re the first, you’re laying the platform for other women to stand on your shoulders.”

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4686

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