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Taking Back The Capitol
Rally in Lansing protests lawmaker’s censure for saying “vagina.”
More than 3,000 individuals were in Lansing June 18 for an orderly rally that was both a political protest and a celebration of women.
Following some inspiring speeches, the largely female crowd — slogan-wearing and sign-bearing — was treated to a staged reading of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking 1996 play about women’s sexuality.
Ensler, a Tony Award-winning playwright, flew from her home in California to speak and oversee the performance on the State Capitol steps. Taking part alongside professional actresses were several female members of the Michigan House of Representatives, including Reps. Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) and Vicki Barnett (D-Farmington Hills).
So, what was going on? This hastily organized “Vaginas Take Back the Capitol” event was an opportunity for the gathering to express its collective anger at Republican leadership in the Michigan House. Leaders prevented two democratically elected female legislators from speaking in a legislative debate about women’s reproductive rights.
On June 13, Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) and colleague Rep. Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) spoke out forthrightly during an emotional hearing on an abortion bill. The following morning, Brown said she was “shocked” to learn that House Floor Leader Jim Stamas (R-Midland) and Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) had instituted a one-day speaking ban on them.
The House had been debating HR 5711, the so-called “Anti-Abortion Super-Bill” introduced by Rep. Bruce Renden (R-Lake City). The bill addresses the disposal of fetal remains, coercive abortion screening, physician liability, and new regulations and an insurance requirement for abortion providers.
“We have freedom of religion in this country, but some laws infringe our beliefs,” said Brown, 45, one of four Jewish members in the State House. She opposed the bill for forcing contradictory religious beliefs upon her and others.
Getting her views accepted on social issues has been challenging. During three-and-a-half years in office, Brown said she’s explained Jewish traditions to colleagues who don’t have Jewish constituents.
“I was the first Jewish girl in my sorority at Michigan State, so I’ve always felt I had to be a good example about Jews,” she said.
In her floor speech on that fateful day, Brown read from To Be a Jew, a book by Rabbi Hayim HaLevy Donin.
“I was educating my colleagues on Judaism’s stance on abortion, that it is mandatory that you would terminate a pregnancy [if the mother might die] because the life of the mother comes before the fetus.”
Brown argued against the bill’s requirement that doctors must ensure women aren’t coerced into ending their pregnancies, holding the opinion that the men were getting too intrusive. Using a medically correct term in a statement that nevertheless went viral, Brown said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”
Byrum’s offense was purportedly for saying the word “vasectomy” on the House floor. Ari Adler, spokesperson for Speaker Bolger, reportedly said GOP leaders wouldn’t let the Democratic representatives speak the following day because “they violated the decorum of the House.”
The bill passed, 70-39, in the Republican-dominated House; the Senate will consider it next.
‘War On Women’
Speaking to the Jewish News on June 20, Brown said, “We were never told why we were banned,” although her seatmate in Congress, Rep. Joan Bauer (D-Lansing), suggested “maybe it’s because of your Jewish faith.”
One follower of state government theorized that Brown saying the word “vagina” in that context was a “hands-off moment for all those men. Being a woman gave her a power they could not match.”
Brown conceded that when she uttered the word, “There was no reaction; no jaws dropped.”
After consulting about what happened, the GOP leaders issued the ban. The theorist said, “It was a calculated response to her very effective power move.”
A Republican House staffer said the word “vagina” was not the issue. Speaker Bolger mentioned to him that Brown’s “saying ‘no means no,’ meant to the House leadership that she was equating the legislation to rape.”
For Brown, the incident has reinforced her feeling that a “war on women” is being waged by Republicans. Otherwise, why was she singled out? As a legislator, she’s seen “colleagues in physical altercations, where sergeants have had to pull one off the other. And they weren’t banned from speaking.”
Last year, she said Rep. Rick Olson (R-Saline) used the phrase, “testicular fortitude” in his comments about an education bill: “No one blinked an eye.”
Brown was annoyed to read that Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) called the ban on her “like putting a child in a timeout.” She exclaimed, “Really?! I’m 45 years old — that comment shows disrespect for women.”
Rep. Mike Callton (R-Nashville), a friendly Jewish House colleague, disappointed Brown by saying “vagina is such a disturbing word; he would never deign to use it in the presence of women or ‘mixed company.’”
“This is from a man who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology,” she said.
Although Brown feels let down by some, many media outlets are defending her cause. The rally-goers definitely had her back.
Sharon Baseman of Huntington Woods went “in solidarity with women everywhere. I think the [state] legislature is getting way out of control, and we’ve got to put our foot down.”
“The rally was about women’s fundamental rights and the belief that women should be treated as equal participants in our democracy,” said Rabbi Amy Bigman, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing.
Susan Greenfield’s husband, Dr. Lawrence Abramson, recommended they attend from West Bloomfield.
“It was a great turnout,” Greenfield said, “but it won’t mean anything unless people follow through and vote for candidates who share our concern about the insidious abrogation of women’s rights that is occurring all over the country.”
The national Progressive Change Campaign Committee is circulating a petition demanding an apology from Michigan House Republicans for banning Brown from speaking on the House floor.
Still smarting from the rebuke, Brown, who is running for Oakland County treasurer in November, said women legislators “should not have to walk on eggshells. What era is this?”
Local Republicans Weigh In On Brown’s Censure
Rep. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy). Knollenberg is the incumbent state representative in the 41st House District, which includes Troy and Clawson. He is seeking the office of Oakland County treasurer.
“I think the situation could have been handled differently by everyone involved. I don’t believe that prohibiting speech is ever a good thing. And having open and honest debate is what our country is all about.”
Would he say the V word? “The best way I can say it is that it’s not my style. It’s not the kind of language I’d use.”
Brad Hantler of West Bloomfield. Hantler is a Republican candidate for state representative in the 39th House District, which includes Commerce Township, West Bloomfield and Wolverine Lake.
“I understand her position [on the House bill], but I don’t think acting childish gets anything done. There’s a mature way to act, and I don’t think that’s the way she acted. I think it was a poor use of her time and her position [to participate in the rally].”
Bubba Urdan of West Bloomfield. Urdan is a Republican candidate for state representative in the 39th House District, which includes Commerce Township, West Bloomfield and Wolverine Lake.
“They said she was ‘censured,’ but she was censored. I’m very upset they censored Lisa Brown — she didn’t do anything wrong. State reps are supposed to debate the issues. If Lisa gets censored, she can’t represent her constituents. If I’m elected, I’m going to represent
Democrats and Independents too. You’re representing all the people in your district.”
Would he say the V word? “Would I? If it had to do with legislation.”
By Esther Allweiss Ingber, Contributing Writer