Louise Knott Ahern
For GLWoman

Sen. Debbie Stabenow gathered her things at the end of a Senate Finance Committee meeting and followed her colleagues out the door.

She had only taken a few steps when a member of her staff stopped her.

“Senator,” the staff member said quietly. “You’re on YouTube.”

“For what?” Stabenow asked.

Even as a high-ranking member of the U.S. Senate, Michigan’s second-term junior senator isn’t known for generating the kind of viral-video drama that has become part-and-parcel of modern politics.

But on that day, Sept. 25, 2009, Stabenow leaned into the microphone and whipped out a one-liner that has become what some consider a defining moment in the health care debate.

The finance committee was discussing an amendment by GOP Sen. Jon

Kyl of Arizona. Kyl wanted to remove from the proposed Senate bill a provision that would require insurance companies to cover certain benefits, including maternity care. He argued that such requirements would raise insurance costs for everyone.

“I don’t need maternity care,” Kyl said in defense of his amendment.

Stabenow and her trademark smile quickly interjected.

“I think your mom probably did.”

Within 24 hours, the video had been viewed more than 100,000 times, and the exchange had been covered by the New York Times, Salon, Huffington Post and countless blogs.

“I was offended as a woman,” Stabenow explained in a recent interview with GLWoman. “That was just the first thing that popped into my head.”

Stabenow’s quip instantly earned her a hero status among women’s groups and health care reform advocates – even as it inflamed those on the opposite side of the debate.

“Democrats have been trying to justify their grand health care plans by pushing the ‘woman’s angle,’ ” wrote Carrie Lukas, vice president of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, shortly after the debate. “It effectively plays on sympathies and can make the opposition look like a bunch of jerks.”

Political ploy or not, Kyl’s amendment was eventually voted down 14 to 9.

The incident has now largely faded from public discourse. But observers who have followed Stabenow’s political career say it will remain a pivotal moment – not only in her own history, but in a larger legacy of blazing new trails for women in politics and giving a voice to women’s issues.

We may take it for granted in 2010 that a woman can hold a prominent seat on a panel as powerful as the Senate Finance Committee. But when Stabenow first ran for public office in 1974, such an achievement was unheard of.

“Debbie has opened doors for us that would not otherwise have been opened,” said state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat from East Lansing who holds the state Senate seat once held by Stabenow. “Three out of the four people representing Lansing are now women.”

Desire to help people

Stabenow was born in 1950 and raised in Clare, where her grandfather and father ran an Oldsmobile and Cadillac dealership. She credits her mother, a registered nurse, with sparking her desire to seek a career helping people in some capacity.

“She gave me the right values of faith and putting family first,” Stabenow said. “As a nurse for 42 years, she showed me how to balance my professional interests with my family.”

As a student at Michigan State University, Stabenow initially envisioned a career in social work. But while still in graduate school, she interned in a program for troubled youth at Lansing’s Cristo Rey Community Center and met a man who would eventually encourage her to turn her passions to public office.

Her supervisor at Cristo Rey was David Hollister, a teacher and member of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. (He would later serve in the state House and as Lansing’s mayor.)

“There were 19 Republicans and two Democrats on the commission then, and I was recruiting young progressives to run,” said Hollister, who is now president of Prima Civitas, a Michigan economic development organization. “Her husband at the time ran and lost.”

When a local nursing home faced possible closure, Stabenow was angry enough to put her own name on the ballot in the next election.

She won.

Three years later, she was named chair of the commission, the youngest person ever to hold the position. And the first woman.

Setting examples

It was the beginning of a long line of political firsts. First woman to preside over the state House. Author of some of the nation’s first laws on tougher domestic violence policies and child car safety. First and only woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Michigan.

Another first that is perhaps most notable to other political moms: She was the first woman to give birth to children while serving in the Michigan Legislature.

Whitmer of East Lansing said that achievement alone has paved the way for so many other women.

“I’ve had two children since serving in the Legislature,” said Whitmer, whose daughters are now 7 and 6. “There were only two other women who had done that before and Debbie was the first. There is no longer a question of whether you can do it. She proved that you can carry a child and still cast votes.”

That’s not to say that Stabenow erased all challenges.

Political strategist and former state House Speaker Dianne Byrum, a longtime friend and political ally of Stabenow’s, remembers a campaign incident that still upsets her today.

“I was going door to door when I was running for the House, and a woman at one house – a woman – told me that I needed to be home with my children,” said Byrum, whose children were then 9 and 12.

One of those children, Barb Byrum, is now following in her mother’s footsteps. She’s the 67th district representative to the state House and recently gave birth to her second child.

“Barb takes that baby right onto the House floor with her,” said Dianne Byrum, the lilt of a proud mom in her voice. “Debbie showed that it could be done, and she excelled at it.”

‘Don’t wait to be asked’

The world looks different now for Stabenow. She looks around and sees Jennifer Granholm, the first woman to serve as governor of Michigan. She sees a world where women like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have made significant cracks in the glass ceiling to the White House.

When Stabenow first entered the state Legislature, she and the few other women there were automatically shuffled onto a handful of low-key committees.

“I refused,” she said. “I had led the county commission and helped to get a new jail built. I ended up on taxation and judiciary. You fast forward to today, and we have a woman chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

Yet she acknowledges that challenges remain.

“There are times when I feel that if I don’t raise an issue on behalf of women, it won’t get raised,” she said.

And when she reflects on the 2008 presidential campaign, she feels Clinton and Palin were sometimes treated differently because they were women. For example, reports of Palin’s clothing expenses on the campaign trail dominated news coverage for days.

“I think there are different standards,” she said. “I felt that the way Clinton was criticized or characterized sometimes would not have been said about a man. I don’t think the media has really figured out how to treat women in power.”

Which is one reason why women need to continue to push the political boundaries, she said.

“The experiences women have and the values we bring to office are critical to decisions being made that make sense,” she said. “Just believe in yourself. Don’t wait to be asked to run. Just step out and do it. Understand that your life experiences are important to the political process.”