Don’t Underestimate the ‘Nice Girls’
A portrait of Michigan’s first woman to serve as the majority leader of the state Senate, Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), was unveiled Wednesday on the International Day of the Girl in a celebration of strides women have made in government representation.
Flanked by female elected officials in Heritage Hall within the Michigan Capitol Building. Brinks discussed barriers women have faced in winning elective offices and challenges faced during their terms.
She recounted her initial run to represent Grand Rapids in the state House in 2012, when a state representative switched political parties at the last minute, leaving Democrats without a candidate on the ballot.
Encouraged to run by her community, Brinks ran as a write-in candidate and won.
“I remember vividly at one point a prominent local Republican said, ‘She’s a nice lady, but she can’t win,’” Brinks said. “First of all, I thought, ‘When did being nice become a bad thing?’ Secondly, these dismissive comments made me more resolved than ever to prove them wrong. And I went on to win that seat not just in 2012 and ‘14 and ‘16 and to flip the Senate seat in ‘18.”
Brinks said she shares this story as a “cautionary tale for those who would underestimate nice ladies.”
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Welch and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist delivered words of appreciation for Brinks, while many other members of the the state Senate and House were in the audience.
Michigan’s first female U.S. senator, Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), recalled her early days as a state representative and then senator in the Capitol.
“It was the first time after renovations at that time in the Capitol there was actually a women’s restroom in the Senate in 1990,” Stabenow said.
But things are changing, Stabenow said, and little girls and boys are able to envision new futures for themselves where there hasn’t been representation in years past.
“When I first took my grandson as a small child to D.C. he looked around and said, ‘Grandma, can boys be U.S. senators?’” Stabenow said to the laughter of attendees.
The portrait of Brinks will hang on the wall alongside male Senate majority leaders of the past, across the hall from the Senate majority leader’s office in the Capitol.
The portrait unveiling was scheduled to be held on the International Day of the Girl to call attention to changing “business as usual for the next generation of girls and women in leadership,” Brinks said.
And being the “nice girl” doesn’t disqualify a woman from being a leader, Brinks said.
“I firmly believe that you don’t have to compromise your goodness to be a leader. In fact, we could use a whole lot more honesty, authenticity. empathy, generosity, and kindness in places of power,” Brinks said. “I believe that these qualities are a necessary complement to the toughness and the hard work that it takes to be successful in this arena.”
But the walls of the Capitol, decorated with the faces of the leaders of the past, are still incomplete, Brinks said, calling attention to the lack of representation of people of color, LGBTQ+ leaders, officials of diverse faiths and those from differing cultural backgrounds.
“I am not the last ‘first,’” Brinks said, “but I am confident that one by one we will keep achieving those firsts.”