Wednesday afternoon, women—and men who value them—turned out to protest the increasingly hostile legal and social environment toward women fostered by the Republican legislature in Wisconsin.
On Tuesday night, the Assembly passed SB 202, a law that repeals the Equal Pay Act signed into law in 2009 that allowed people to sue employers who illegally discriminate against them based on protected class status. This ALEC-style "tort reform" bill was authored by ALEC members Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) and Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh).
In a 2010 report, “Wisconsin Women, Wages and the Recession,” the Center on Wisconsin Strategy reported that “Wisconsin women earned, on average, only 81 cents for every dollar earned by men. Moreover, women continue to be concentrated in occupations that are low-wage and low-quality.”
The Equal Pay Act was developed to provide legal protection to women who are unfairly compensated based on their gender. The ability to bring a civil suit for damages was supplementary to state administrative processes that can award back pay. No case has ever been brought to court in this law’s two-year lifespan.
During floor debate on the bill, Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said, “I am mystified as to where this thinking comes from that we don't want for our daughters what we want for our sons.”
The executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, Sara Finger, further pointed out, “This assault on women’s economic security comes in addition to the onslaught of bills that have been introduced that seek to restrict access to women’s health care services and information.” She added, “Between efforts to demonize birth control, restrict access to cancer screenings and treatments and deny young people comprehensive medically accurate sexuality education, we are seeing an unprecedented attack on women’s ability to achieve their optimal health and well-being.”
On top of all that, the Senate Wednesday morning passed a bill that makes it more difficult to obtain an abortion and requires doctors to verify that a woman seeking the procedure was not coerced into it. SB 306 also assesses criminal penalties on doctors if they don't provide proof of said verification. This is a legal set-up for the four supporting organizations, Wisconsin Family Action, Inc., Wisconsin Right to Life, Pro-Choice Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, to harass abortion providers with lawsuits and intimidate them with the fear of criminal penalties.
Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) was direct in her criticism of the bill’s author, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin): “Just call a spade a spade! Say you're carrying water for Right to Lifers. Say you want to take women's rights back years.”
In a speech to the crowds gathered at the Solidarity Sing-along and rally for women’s rights, Rep. Christine Taylor (D-Madison) said, “Last night as we were debating this bill in the Assembly it seemed more like 1912 than 2012!” To say that those in attendance were furious about these latest assaults is not an exaggeration.
After a year of fundamental rights being stripped, budgets for health care and schools being slashed, any notion of public good or public trust erased from state agencies, and the voices of citizens completely silenced in formal political processes, the grim realization that the actions of the Walker-Fitzgerald regime are fundamentally reshaping the structures of our lives for the worse is sinking in.
People coming out to protest might be doing so in smaller numbers today compared with last year, but they bring to their activities persistence, increased confidence and a fierce determination to restore civility and the value of humanity to public discourse.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.