LANSING, Mich. (Kathleen Gray/Detroit Free Press) - In the days when a dozen women graced the floor of the state Senate and 18 more sat in the House, the self-titled Old Broad's Club would routinely gather in the office of then-state Sen. Shirley Johnson, R-Royal Oak, to talk about common concerns and occasionally toss back a drink or two.
They were Democrats and Republicans alike - all with strong, influential voices - in the club.
"It's not like that anymore," said Johnson, who left the Legislature in 2006 because of term limits.
Indeed, the number of women in the state Legislature has fallen to a 20-year low. Only four women are serving in the Senate and 24 in the House, leaving Michigan ranked 36th in the nation in terms of female representation in the Legislature. Since the 2010 election cycle, nine women have lost their seats either through term limits or at the ballot box.
¦ Graphic: Number of women in Michigan's legislature
Even though women represent 51% of the state's population, only 18.9% of the legislators in Lansing are female. And the future doesn't look too bright for women in Lansing. Several women will have to leave the Legislature because of term limits in 2014 and the front-runners to replace them, so far, are men.
"Women bring a different perspective and life experience to office," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "You see the world through a different lens. You're more likely to have issues related to women and families as priorities."
Without a strong presence, that perspective often gets lost.
"Women are the primary people who are making household decisions, taking care of children and ailing parents," said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, who will have to leave in 2014 because of term limits. "There is so much that happens here that uniquely impacts women and there are just so few of us that I'm really concerned."
Bills stalled this year that would make breast-feeding in public a civil right; provide pay equity for women, who earn about 71 cents on the dollar compared to men; require doctors to provide specific information to females about breast cancer risk, and reinstate a tax credit for child care and a deduction for children.
None of those Democrat-proposed bills have gotten a hearing in the House or Senate. But that's as much about Republican control of the two chambers, said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, as about the gender gap in the Legislature.
"I know they have 26 votes, but they need to hear this. Our job is to make sure that our values are articulated," she said, referring to the 26-12 GOP majority in the Senate. "I want them to understand the consequences of their actions or inactions."
Republicans disagree, noting that their agenda helps create jobs and improves the economy, which will help all Michigan residents, including women and children.
"The issues I'm passionate about are what a lot of women are passionate about: making sure that there are jobs here for my kids," said state Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto. "And that our schools are really good and preparing our kids for the 21st Century."
Legislators such as Lyons and Warren represent some of the rising political voices in Lansing. But getting women to run in today's politically charged, and often nasty, atmosphere has become a challenge.
"There's quite a gender gap in terms of making the decision to run. Men are much more likely to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, 'I'd be a fabulous legislator,' " said Walsh. "Women don't seriously look at running until someone asks them."
Anne Mervenne, co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program, which runs a school for candidates, said trying to maintain a work-life balance keeps some women away. And the tenor of the debate in politics turns off many women.
"Running for office used to be seen as a form of public service," she said. "But we're seeing all the negative advertising. Do they and their families really want to endure that?"
Last year, two Democratic female state representatives were silenced during a debate on a bill that would have put more stringent regulations on abortion clinics. The ensuing furor - one of the women, then-state Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, used the word "vagina" during her remarks - galvanized women and brought playwright Eve Ensler and her "Vagina Monologues" to the steps of the state Capitol. Another Republican state senator referred to public relations professional Kelly Rossman-McKinney as a "hooker" during a verbal volley on the senator's media-seeking ways.
"There appears to be a greater gender divisiveness than I've seen in many, many years," said Rossman-McKinney. "Had there been more women in office on both sides of the aisle, I'd like to think we'd be debating the merits of issues and not fall into a gender food fight."
Several groups are trying to fill the gaps. Emily's List, which has been recruiting and fund-raising for Democratic women for 25 years, will have two training sessions for potential candidates in Michigan this month and in October.
"Michigan is a top priority for us to build a pipeline of strong women leaders," said Mary Stech, spokeswoman for Emily's List. The declining numbers are a "rallying cry for us to double down on our efforts in Michigan."
State Rep. Ellen Cogan Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, helped spearhead a fund-raiser in Ferndale last month that raised money to recruit and contribute to female candidates. "We know that when we run, we win. And when we win, we change the world," she told the group of about 50 people. "We've got to help them over the finish line."
Dawn Crandall, political affairs director of the Michigan Association of Home Builders, is the president of the Michigan Excellence in Public Service Series, which has recruited and trained Republican women to run for office since 2007.
"There really wasn't a program designed just for Republican women," Crandall said. "I've worked for males and females, and women bring a different negotiating style and might have a little more patience. Without women, you lose a whole other perspective of how issues are looked at."