Along with many others, I was shocked by what transpired in the Wisconsin State Senate last Wednesday. The clearly unhinged State Senate President Mike Ellis abruptly cut off debate about a very controversial—and not-especially-popular—ultrasound bill that had been introduced on June 4 and had had only one public hearing less than two days later.
Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison), the longest-serving state legislator in the country, said: “I’ve been in the Legislature over 50 years, through different majorities and different minorities, and I have never experienced the abuse of power by the majority party that I experienced today. The arrogance shown by the Republican Majority today is unprecedented.” Given what Sen. Risser has already witnessed from this legislature, that is really saying something.
I was so appalled—not just by what was being done (which was no surprise), but by how it was being done—that I felt compelled to be at the capitol the next day to witness what would happen to the bill in the State Assembly. Before heading up to gallery, I went to the Solidarity Sing Along at noon in the rotunda to bolster my spirits—it always has that effect.
Toward the end of the sing along, I stopped singing and put tape over my mouth to signify having been silenced in the way this bill was being rammed with lightning speed through the legislature. Just putting the tape over my mouth brought me to tears, because it drove home the indignity of being silenced, of being excluded from discussion of this intensely personal issue.
|Capitol Police in the west gallery of the Assembly.
Photo by Leslie Amsterdam
When I arrived in the south gallery, I saw more than half a dozen capitol police in the west gallery. A couple were in the south gallery as well. Clearly the intent was to intimidate. Then I saw that the spectators with tape over their mouths in the west gallery were being told to remove it. Apparently taped mouths constitute a “public display or demonstration.”
|That’s me on the left. Photo by Rebecca Kemble|
It was maybe 10 minutes or so before a red-jacketed page (who I strongly suspect likes her job) told those of us in the south gallery that we had to take the tape off our mouths or leave. We were handed a small sheet of paper (about 2-1/2 x 4 inches) with type too small for me to read listing the Assembly Gallery Rules. One of my friends wryly pointed out to the page that reading the rules violates the rules, as reading printed materials is prohibited.
|Rep. Melissa Sargent
Photo by Leslie Amsterdam
Meanwhile, on the Assembly floor, discussion began about AB216, which prohibits the state health program from covering abortions and allows religious organizations to deny contraception coverage. Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) spoke about a woman who had had eight children and then was told that having another child would endanger her life. So for the sake of her family, and in consultation with them and her physician, and after having sought and received dispensation from the Catholic Church, she procured the contraception that would prevent a life-threatening pregnancy. Under AB216 that woman would not have been able to procure what she needed to protect her life. At the end of her testimony, Rep. Sargent revealed that the woman in the story was her grandmother.
I listened (with glee, I confess) when Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) said, “I do not see vasectomy anywhere in this legislation. I don’t hear anyone talking about denying a man the right to have that procedure covered. … I’m not sure why we are so focused on women. … I’m waiting for the day when we can have your anatomy on trial.”
During this and the often moving testimony of other Democratic legislators, many GOP representatives were talking, milling around, or just absent, as though nothing of any significance was happening. A confab of representatives was huddled next to the Speaker’s podium. As a first-time visitor, I found it confusing and chaotic. While minority leader Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) told about a college friend who was raped, Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, whose job it is to see that decorum is maintained, was laughing and joking around with other legislators. When Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) pointedly asked the Speaker if he was listening, he shrugged, as if to say “What’s the big deal?”
Finally, Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) requested a roll call because, you know, “this is important stuff.” Apparently, it’s not enough for GOP legislators to ram through their anti-woman legislation with lightning speed. They have to do it cavalierly, without even pretending to care how it will affect the women and families of this state. It reminded me of a rape victim being laughed at and dismissed by her rapist. Seriously.
When Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood) described the bill’s author as “seriously out of touch with the reality of women,” a small smattering of applause broke out from some of the spectators in the west gallery. This unseemly outburst was quickly stifled by Speaker Kramer with a bigger outburst of his own. Stopping the assembly proceedings so that he could castigate the evildoers, he ordered that an entire row of spectators be removed from the gallery, not just those who had clapped, but everyone in the second row, including Rep. Bewley’s husband.
|Sara Andrews being removed from the gallery in handcuffs.
Photo by Leslie Amsterdam
Sara Andrews committed the same unforgivable transgression as Rep. Bewley’s husband. She complied when told to remove the tape, opting then to put her hands over her mouth. She didn’t clap when others did because she knew it was against the rules. But having committed the grave folly of sitting in the second row, she was told she had to leave by the Capitol Police. Feeling she was being unfairly treated, she replied that if they wanted her to leave they would have to arrest her. And they did. I watched in disbelief as she was taken out of the gallery in handcuffs. I started to have that unreal feeling, like I was in a waking nightmare. I think it was at that point that I started shaking.
After two hours of holding my hands over my mouth and crying on and off, I had to leave because I had another commitment. I’m not sure how much more I could have endured in any case. When I left, they hadn’t started talking about AB206, the ultrasound bill. However, since then I have watched videos of what occurred after I left. One of the most moving videos was that of Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Middleton), who described the painful experience of deciding to terminate an unsuccessful pregnancy. She concluded: “Some decisions do not belong to you. You can’t have them. You just can’t. You can’t hurt people this way. … What you’re doing is cruel, absolutely cruel.”
I’m so proud of the brave fighting women legislators of Wisconsin—Senator Kathleen Vinehout, Representatives Chris Taylor, Melissa Sargent, Sondy Pope, Mandy Wright, to name only a few—and so grateful to them for sharing their painful, personal experiences, especially in front of a legislature that is so obviously unmoved and indifferent. They stood up and spoke on our behalf, for the women and families of Wisconsin, at no small cost to themselves, so that others could see what this bullying legislature and governor are doing to us and the contemptuous way they’re doing it.
Add to that not only the circumvention of all but the most minimal public input, but also the quashing of even the mildest form of public protest imaginable. Our silent objection to being silenced—putting tape over our mouths—was forbidden. Our role has been relegated to that of passive, voiceless recipient. Is it any wonder that many of us feel that GOP legislators are abusing the women and families of this state, not only by forcing those seeking a legal abortion to get an unnecessary and invasive medical procedure, but also by excluding us from the legislative process, even when it concerns us so very personally and directly? Even the state’s medical professionals have not had any input. While our voices are silenced, this is the loud and clear message of the Wisconsin GOP to the women of the state: Sit down and shut up!
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Many thanks to Leslie Amsterdam and Rebecca Kemble
for their excellent photos!