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Michigan “Vagina” Controversy Part of a Long History of Sexism in the State Legislature

By now you’ve probably heard about Michigan State Reps. Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum, who were blocked from speaking on the floor of the legislature because of comments like Brown’s “I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina, but no means no” at the end of a debate on an abortion bill. Byrum used the word “vasectomy,” a term for a legal medical procedure, in the remarks that got her sent to the penalty box.

Ari Adler, the spokesman for the House Majority Leader, Jase Bolger, has used a shifting set of explanations for banning the two female lawmakers from speaking. First he said it was their attitudes, that throwing a “temper tantrum” reflected badly on the decorum of the House. When nobody bought that, Adler claimed that Brown’s “no means no” comment was a rape reference.

Brown spoke to TPM today, and referred to a “war on women” that wasn’t allowing her voice to be heard. She did not refer, however, to what insiders in Michigan describe as a history of sexism on the part of the male leadership of the state legislature.

To use just one example, Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate minority leader, is often the subject of this kind of abuse. She recently objected to a bill that got some national renown, which would have allowed religious believers to appeal to their freedom of worship to go on bullying LGBT individuals. Bulliers could simply claim that their actions were based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”

When Whitmer objected, Rick Jones, the sponsor of the legislation, basically called Whitmer hysterical. Jones’ antics continued, getting formal complaints from two separate women in ensuing months. Jones later referred to a female public relations executive as a hooker. When Whitmer responded by charging the state legislature with longstanding sexism:

As a female legislator, I often speak to groups of women — from Girl Scouts and graduates to fellow female attorneys and aspiring politicians. I share my personal experiences and discuss the myriad of challenges females face in elected office. But I rarely convey how much chauvinism and sexism still go on in politics today because, quite frankly, I am embarrassed by it. I do not have the heart to tell a classroom full of girls that the same attitudes and animosity they encounter on the playground persist to our highest levels of government.

Sexism in the Legislature is usually more latent, but as of late it has become particularly blatant. Recently state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, publicly and premeditatedly compared a prominent female professional in Lansing to a “hooker.”

Everyone knows how supercharged such terms are, and this is a new low in a political realm that is already known for its cheap shots and name-calling. This is completely out of line, and I am appalled that anyone, let alone a legislative colleague, would exercise such inappropriate conduct.

Sadly, this is just the most recent and most prominent incident in a pattern of Jones’ boorish and chauvinistic behavior and his leadership’s apparent willingness to tolerate it.

For this, a Republican radio host affirmed that he considered Whitmer “a government hooker,” something he never backed down from.

So clearly, while this latest exchange went national, it was no different from a long history of an old-boy’s network in Lansing, lashing out at women who dare to be powerful advocates.

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David Dayen

David Dayen