Gretchen Whitmer Is Leading Boldly in Challenging Times

·6 min read
governor gretchen whitmer
Gretchen Whitmer Is Leading BoldlyJulia Pickett

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governor gretchen whitmer
Julia Pickett
women of impact
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When Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s mom was working as a Michigan assistant attorney general, she put on a fuchsia blazer to wear to court one day. “Someone in the office said, ‘Sherry, you can’t wear fuchsia to court,’” Whitmer says, noting that few women worked in the attorney general’s office back in those days. “I’ll never forget hearing how she looked him dead on and said, ‘Fuchsia is my power color.’ Then, she went to court and knocked it out of the ballpark.”

Many days during Whitmer’s first term as governor of Michigan required that she channel the mettle instilled in her by her foremothers. She led her state through the pandemic, climate emergencies, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. She stayed strong during attacks from then-President Donald Trump and the arrest of 13 men charged with orchestrating a plot to kidnap her that the FBI said was part of an attempt to overthrow the state government. “With challenge, you find out what you’re made of and that’s where the growth happens,” Whitmer says. “So, I would say the last four years have been hard, and I also would say that there’s good value that’s come from it.”

People often ask her how she handled it all, and first let it be known that she is human. “They say, ‘How do you balance everything?’ I’m like, ‘There’s no such thing as balance,’” she laughs. “Let’s just dispel that. But you can get a lot accomplished if you have your priorities straight.” She points to the period when she was a newly elected state legislator, both mothering a newborn and caring for her own mother, who was dying of brain cancer. She remembers having to battle with an insurance company to pay for her mom’s chemo after the claim was denied (she found her mom in tears at the kitchen table over the matter one day). “That period of my life that really forged me,” she says. “It made me the person that I am today and gave me the ability to not get distracted by the noise.”

gretchen whitmer
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrate during an election night watch party at MotorCity Casino Hotel on Nov. 9, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan.Brandon Bell - Getty Images

That skill may serve Whitmer well as everyone watches to see how she will wield the slim Democratic majority the midterm elections handed her party in the state legislature. “We flipped both chambers; it was a really incredible thing. It’s only happened four times in 130 years in Michigan,” she says. “But with that comes an immense responsibility to show that when Democrats lead, we make people’s lives better.” She plans to focus on improving the state’s infrastructure (as a candidate in 2018, she made a splash by promising “to fix the damn roads”), growing the economy, and making Michigan a safe haven for people seeking reproductive care. (Whitmer was early to the abortion fight; a month before the Dobbs decision leaked, she filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s 1931 law banning abortion. A judge ruled the law unconstitutional in September; Michigan voters went on to approve an amendment in November guaranteeing the right to abortion in the state’s constitution.)

As she works to accomplish her goals, she’ll have the support of her fellow Democratic women state governors whose numbers are slowly increasing (yes, they have a group chat). And as always, she’ll lean on the lessons instilled in her by the women who raised her. When she was sworn in for a second term in January, she wore a bright fuchsia coat.

On the convictions of the men who plotted to kidnap her

“I didn’t follow the cases daily like some people did. I just couldn’t go there. I’ve got a big job and a lot to do, and I didn’t really want all of that to occupy my headspace. But I had confidence in our system of justice and I was grateful to see accountability. Obviously [the plot] was directed at me, but this isn’t really about me. This is about where we are as a nation and what we are going to tolerate. Are we going to let threats to our democracy play out? So when people who threaten public servants get held accountable, I think that’s a good thing. Not just in this case, but in the larger picture for the American democracy.”

On being a woman in politics

“When I first began my career in public service, there just weren’t that many women in positions of authority. It was novel, and it was challenging. Those of us who were, we really stood out. We got a ton of scrutiny. We’ve seen those ranks grow, and I think it makes it easier for women to show up as they are and to be their authentic selves in all places.”

gretchen whitmer
Michigan State Governor Gretchen Whitmer wears a “My Body My Decision” shirt.JEFF KOWALSKY - Getty Images

On what she wishes she knew starting out

“To show up as you are. For better or worse, women candidates get criticized for not being authentic. Because, who knows what someone’s really like? Speaking to your own situation and understanding yourself and why you do the work that you do, helps earn trust of people. It’s sometimes hard to show your real self. It’s vulnerable, but I’ve built stronger relationships, and at the end of the day, that’s how you get things done in almost any workplace. I think showing up as my true self would’ve been helpful to me earlier on in my career. I figured it out, but it wasn’t always easy, and I didn’t have a mentor who encouraged me to do that.”

On what amazes her

“I won my first election. I lost my hometown by two votes, and I won the rest of the district by 150. I’ve had a long incredible career, and I’ve been fortunate to win every election I’ve ever run. So that amazes me.”

On her legacy

“I want to make Michigan a state where every person, no matter their gender or their sexual orientation, the color of their skin, or how much money is in their pocket, has got a real path to prosperity.”

gretchen whitmer
Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers remarks after taking a tour of a FOCUS:HOPE facility in Detroit, Michigan.Kent Nishimura - Getty Images

On ambition

“Ambition is a healthy, good quality in people. You want people who are hungry and aren't afraid to work, and that’s how I would define ambition. I think the world has changed dramatically in a lot of ways for women in the workplace. Women are now owning our space and being true to who we are as opposed to trying to be what we think someone else expects of us. As a mom of two young women, the world in which they’re growing up encourages and better rewards women for showing up as they are. That’s a much better world than the one that I grew up in 30 some years ago.”

Her mantra

“This is really boring, but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

A version of this story appears in the April 2023 issue of ELLE.

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