Years after she was sexually assaulted, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer is no longer hiding
It’s not a word that comes to mind to describe Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate Minority leader and the first woman to lead a caucus in the Michigan Senate.
It’s not a word that comes to mind walking the marbled halls of the Capitol to Whitmer’s office, with her bustling staff and the phones ringing off the hook.
It’s not a word that came to mind as the senator confidently spoke on the steps of the Capitol, addressing fellow marchers at the Take Back the Night event Tuesday evening.
But it happened.
More than 20 years ago, at the age of eighteen, Whitmer was raped during her freshman year at MSU.
Whitmer revealed her assault in a No-Vote explanation in December of last year, speaking out against an initiative requiring women to buy a separate insurance rider for abortion coverage in their health insurance plan.
But the Democratic leader didn’t change a single vote. The bill passed and was signed into law.
“In the immediate aftermath...I was very depressed,” Whitmer admitted. “I shared this personal, awful thing, and it didn’t make a difference. Not one of my Republican colleagues got up and defended the law or a had a debate about whether or not passing that law made sense.”
It wasn’t until the next morning, when she discovered thousands of women had contacted her office, sent her emails or left messages on Facebook, that she realized even after decades, her story was worth sharing.
“The outpouring of gratitude ... absolutely bowled me over,” Whitmer said. “Every week, if not every day, I run into someone who thanks me for doing that, and shares a similar story with me. If we’re ever going to change it, we need to talk about it.”
And Whitmer did exactly that on Tuesday night as the keynote speaker for MSU’s 36th annual Take Back the Night event.
Take Back the Night is a national campaign, in which participants speak out against sexual violence. On campus, day-long workshops were held in the MSU Union. After a candlelight vigil at the Beaumont Tower, students and members of the local community marched to the Capitol to hear Whitmer speak about her experience.
As a word to describe Sen. Whitmer, it’s as ill-fitting as the April snowfall that preceded Tuesday’s march.
Survivor, she suggests, might be a better alternative.
Someone she knew
Whitmer’s rapist wasn’t a masked villain or a stranger off the street.
He was someone she knew.
“One of the worst misconceptions is for it to be a real crime, it has to be a stranger, and that’s done such a huge disservice to women for ages,” Whitmer said. “Whether you know your attacker or not, it’s rape, it’s a crime, it’s a violation and it stays with you the rest of your life.”
What Whitmer remembers most was the shame she felt after the attack. She didn’t report the rape to law enforcement or to MSU. For a time, she didn’t even want to leave her room.
“I was embarrassed,” she said. “I didn’t want to be known as the victim. I didn’t want that to be the one thing people knew about me. I didn’t know where to go or who I could trust. I was scared.”
Even now, sharing her story at age 42, Whitmer said she’s faced backlash, and that victim blaming, such as questioning what women wear or how much they drink, is still an issue.
Knowing her rapist not only made her question everything she knew about others, but her own judgement as well.
“With time, you heal,” she explained. “With resources, you heal faster, if you’re talking about things.”
For a long time, Whitmer didn’t talk. Her colleagues in the Michigan legislature knew about her rape before her parents and her siblings in December. She never confided in roommates or girlfriends. Her husband knew, and so did a few men whom she’d been in serious relationships with over the years.
“My hope is that fewer women face this crime, and for those who do, that there isn’t the taboo there was when I was a victim of it,” she said.
Another hope Whitmer has is for MSU’s Title IX investigations to lead to progress in how sexual assault cases are handled on campus.
“Universities have a unique and very primary responsibility,” Whitmer said. “None of us knows all the facts of what’s happening (in the investigation), but this is a problem on campuses all across the U.S., and it has existed for decades. So it hasn’t been addressed like it should have been.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the outcome of these investigations, to see if we can actually begin talking about this...changing and fixing it, (and) preventing it. That’s the hope, that no matter what the conclusion of the investigation is, I think we can all know there’s always more that can be done,” she said.
Taking back the night
Inside the MSU Museum Tuesday afternoon, some students opened up about their experiences with sexual assault, many for the first time during the Survivor Speakout.
“I want to feel like a survivor, but I still feel...angry,” one girl testified. “I wish I felt brave more than I do. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to speak about it.”
Some students discussed how their academic performance suffered after their assaults. Others, however, were inspired to go into majors like social work because of what happened to them.
MSU alumna Rachel Berzack was inspired by her work on MSU’s Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention team, and returned after graduating last May to serve as the Take Back the Night event coordinator.
“We definitely had a good group come out today,” Berzack said. “And we’ve only picked up momentum throughout the day. It’s exciting to see this kind of turnout.”
Some came to listen, others to confess.
“I was raped by someone who I thought was a friend, who I trusted,” said one student during the Speakout. “I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve told.”
Just like Sen. Whitmer, before this December. Before now.
Later that night in the cold, she didn’t address victims. She addressed survivors.
“I think we’re victims when it happens and we’re survivors after it happens. It’s important to talk about it with both those phrases,” Whitmer said. “(The word) victim shows theres nothing a woman does to contribute to her being raped. But afterward, every day we go on and we do something, we’re survivors and we’re fighters."