‘Vagina’ Speech Makes Michigan Lawmaker Symbol in Abortion Wars

Representatives Brown and Byrum
Representative Barb Byrum, left black, Representative Lisa Brown, right red, and others take part at the Vagina Monologue's event, "Vaginas Take Back the Capitol, held at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on June 18, 2012. Source: JDC Photography via Bloomberg

Ever since Lisa Brown sarcastically told fellow Michigan lawmakers that she was flattered by their interest in her private parts, her life has become a swirl of interviews, hugs, handshakes and a starring role in a Capitol steps performance of the “The Vagina Monologues.”

“That was the craziest week of my life,” said Brown, a 45-year-old Democrat from suburban Detroit who on June 13 used the word “vagina” in opposing a bill to regulate abortion clinics more strictly. The next day, Republicans prevented her from speaking, along with fellow state representative Democrat Barb Byrum, who yelled “vasectomy” when her pleas to speak were ignored.

The one-day gag order has become a rallying point for Democrats who accuse Republicans, who dominate the state Legislature, of trampling women’s rights and free speech. Videos of Brown’s and Byrum’s statements have become fodder for bloggers, talk radio and cable television as lawmakers across the nation debate a record number of bills aimed at making abortions more difficult to obtain.

Battles over such laws have flared in 14 states this year, including Mississippi, Kansas, Arizona, Texas and Florida, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League in Washington and the Guttmacher Institute. In 2011, a record 92 such bills passed, according to the nonpartisan New York-based institute, which studies reproductive rights.

Women compose 21 percent of Michigan’s Legislature, and 24 percent in all states combined, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Two decades ago, those numbers were 15 percent and 18 percent respectively.

Splendor and Silence

More female legislators are speaking out in defense of reproductive rights, said Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. She knew of no others silenced.

“It’s a kind of muscleman response,” she said.

The plain talk and brute politics played out June 13 in the ornate House chamber in the Capitol in Lansing, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Detroit. It’s gold and teal forum surrounded on three sides by overhead public galleries; etched glass panels with the seals of U.S. states form the ceiling high above the 110 members.

And it was there that Brown, from West Bloomfield, told Republicans: “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

Byrum, a 34-year-old from Onondaga, about 15 miles from Lansing, objected when she wasn’t permitted to speak on an amendment she offered to allow vasectomies only in medical emergencies.

‘Temper Tantrums’

The next day, Brown and Byrum were told by Republican Floor Leader Jim Stamas of Midland that they couldn’t speak. Brown and Byrum said they were never given reasons.

Fanning Democrats’ outrage were House Republicans who called the women’s floor comments “temper tantrums,” and compared silencing the two women to “giving a kid a timeout for a day.” Some cited Brown’s “no means no” remark, which they said compared support of the bill to rape.

The measure, which also makes it a crime to coerce a woman to abort a fetus, passed 70-39 and awaits consideration in the Senate, which Republicans also dominate. Ed Rivet, spokesman for Right to Life Michigan, said he is confident it will pass the upper chamber later this year.

Flying Ashtray

Stamas didn’t return telephone messages seeking comment.

Ari Adler, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said by e-mail that Brown “crossed the line” by comparing the bill to a rape and that Byrum was disruptive.

“This has never been about the word vagina, but about respect and professionalism in honoring open and honest debate,” he said.

The Michigan Legislature has seen fisticuffs, insults and an assault involving an ashtray. No members were banned from speaking as a result, said Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics and a 45-year observer of Lansing battles.

“Believe me, it’s not going to happen again,” said Ballenger, a former Republican senator, who called House Republicans’ actions “asinine.”

The muzzling “has mobilized people,” said Gretchen Whitmer, leader of the Michigan Senate’s Democratic minority. “The Republicans haven’t apologized. They’ve given more excuses.”

The incident caused “a dramatic spike” in donations, said John Tramontana, a state Democratic Party spokesman, who wouldn’t divulge the amount raised.

“It’s been a great organizing tool,” he said.

It’s Showtime

Democrats hastily arranged the June 18 performance of “The Vagina Monologues” play at the Capitol for a rally of about 3,000 people. A dozen female legislators took part reading its anecdotes about sexuality and women’s relationship with their bodies. Playwright Eve Ensler attended and called on Republicans to apologize.

The blowback enveloped Republican Representative Mike Callton, who was quoted saying that that he wouldn’t refer to a vagina in mixed company.

That, he said in a telephone interview, drew more than 1,000 angry e-mails from as far as Kazakhstan and Japan, and taunting mail, such as a vagina coloring book and what he described as a life-size model of the body part in question.

Raining Cash

Callton, 54, a chiropractor, said Brown made a provocative statement in a House chamber watched by children and others who might be aghast.

“If I made the same comment about my male counterpart before a woman speaker, I would expect to have serious consequences,” said Callton, from Nashville, a village of 1,600 in southern Michigan.

For Byrum and Brown, the consequences were celebrity and money. Both are leaving the House and running for county clerk where they live, and both said they have had a surge of campaign donations, though neither had tallied how much.

Byrum opened a political action committee called More Women in Government. The PAC was established the day after Byrum and Brown were silenced, which Byrum called a “misogynistic act by the Republicans.” Byrum said money has come into the fund so fast she doesn’t know how much it holds.

“I still get stopped in the grocery story by people saying, ‘Way to speak up,’” she said in a telephone interview. “The outpouring of support has been just amazing.”

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