State representative Chris Taylor was sitting outside on a beautiful summer afternoon, meeting constituents at the UW-Madison's Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota.
Taylor, a rising star in the state Democratic party and former public policy director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, led the charge against Governor Scott Walker's forced ultrasound bill in the state legislature. (The bill, which Walker signed into law over the Fourth of July weekend, is on hold after a
judge's order in response to a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.)
Women in the Assembly, including Taylor, told dramatic personal stories from the floor of their pregnancies, sexual abuse, and the ordeal of losing a wanted child late in pregnancy, by way of explaining why Republican politicians should not force women to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds.
"That debate jarred them a little bit," Taylor says. "They didn't want Assembly women standing up and talking about our experiences with life . . . I don't know if they can take that again."
The attack on women's reproductive rights, in Wisconsin and around the nation, is not great politics for Republicans, Taylor points out. "Transvaginal ultrasounds" ruined Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's vice presidential prospects in 2012.
Likewise, in Wisconsin, independent and Republican women are waking up to the fact that their state legislators are determined to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics and force women to undergo arduous and humiliating medical procedures for no good reason, except to make them feel worse about seeking an abortion.
In a way, Taylor says, it's a good thing that the Republicans' extremism is finally being exposed to the public.
"We shouldn't be surprised this is coming from Scott Walker," says Taylor. "He has never, ever stated that he is for birth control." Taylor remembers from her Planned Parenthood days that Walker deflected questions about whether he supports the use of condoms and other forms of birth control. "He replied constantly, 'I'm for life,'" she recalls.
"On the national stage, I hope he's pressed on these issues," Taylor says. "If people knew he doesn't support birth control . . . how can he be a national contender, when the Republicans openly say they have a woman problem?"
In Wisconsin, where polls show a majority of voters do not favor the Republicans' extreme anti-choice agenda, Taylor is trying to help coordinate the pushback.
Part of the problem is that the public is only recently waking up to how intensely anti-woman and anti-choice the rightwing Republicans who control state government really are, Taylor says. Another problem is the lack of statewide infrastructure for the pro-women's health side.
Wisconsin does not have an active chapter of NOW, Taylor points out, and other women's groups are just beginning to get energized.
"We've got to bring the different groups working on women's issues together, and we've got to get a better statewide network," she says. "It all falls to Planned Parenthood, and they're in the middle of two lawsuits."
Meanwhile, within Wisconsin's Republican party, the far right has taken over. More moderate committee chairs have been replaced by social conservatives, and extreme bills that once languished in committee are now making it all the way to the governor's desk for signature.
"We are going to see more bad abortion bills," Taylor predicts, "We are going to see a 20-week total ban."
Independent and Republican women who either don't know what's happening or feel they won't be personally affected are increasingly motivated to join the pushback, Taylor says.
"These are motivating issues," she points out. "Foster Friess's comments and quotes like 'some girls rape easy,' don't help them."
Indeed, the disconnect between real life and the extreme rightwing politics dominating Wisconsin and the national Republican party right now looked particularly stark on this summer day, against the familiar backdrop of the UW's union terrace, as Taylor's constituents stopped by to chat with her, while kids slurped ice cream cones and students bought beer and listened to the music in the sun.
A couple of young women from the university's United Council stopped to talk to Taylor about their work combatting sexual assault on campus. Their job has been made harder by a state budget item that bars the UW Board of Regents from collecting the refundable fees that fund the student organization.
"How can you defund student government?" Taylor remarked, incredulously.
She listened closely to the student who said she had been sexually assaulted and is now trying to push to reform the university's sexual assault reporting policies.
"I learned when we were working on the mandatory ultrasound bill that only 19 percent of women report sexual assault," Taylor said. She gave the students names of contacts at the rape crisis center and other groups, and offered to host a brown bag session in her office. "Some of my Republican colleagues might be willing to work on this issue," she said.
Another constituent, Lilada Gee, runs a Christian charity that reaches out to homeless teens--particularly African American girls who have become pregnant.
"I'm pro-life," Gee said. "But my concern with the mandatory ultrasound is that it could be very traumatizing. As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I can't imagine having it forced upon you."
Gee and Taylor talked about the problem of finding housing for teenaged girls and their babies. A lot of them can't find a space at an adult or a family shelter, and end up sleeping in their cars or having "security sex" in exchange for housing, Gee said. Many feel coerced into giving up their parental rights. "Their problems are off the radar," Gee said. "One of the biggest pieces that isn't addressed is the sexual abuse piece."
Taylor listened closely and asked question. She and Gee compared notes on local services.
Afterwards, Gee described it in a FaceBook post, as "a great conversation."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Pro-choice Women Should Take On Republican Govs."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter