1. News & Issues

Vaginagate - Michigan Lawmaker Silenced for Saying 'Vagina'

Rep. Lisa Brown's 'Vagina' Comment During Abortion Debate Triggers Controversy

By

Updated June 20, 2012

Arguing against pending legislation that would make obtaining an abortion more difficult for women in Michigan, state Representative Lisa Brown used the word "vagina" on the House floor  on June 14, 2012 and launched what would come to be known as "Vaginagate." According to the Detroit News:

Brown, a West Bloomfield Democrat and mother of three, said a package of abortion regulation bills would violate her Jewish religious beliefs and that abortions be be allowed in cases where it is required to save the life of the mother.

"Finally, Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but 'no' means 'no,'" Brown said Wednesday.

The following day Brown found herself barred from speaking by Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas who determined that Brown's comments violated the decorum of the House.

Similarly, that same day Democratic Representative Barbara Byrum was silenced over a speech proposing that a man seeking a vasectomy prove his life was endangered before the procedure could be done. While the Republican leadership claims that Brown was gagged because of a comment that likened the anti-abortion legislation to rape -- one House member made it clear that he was squeamish about the V word:

"What she said was offensive," said Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville. "It was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company."

Susan J. Demas, a political analyst for Michigan Information and Research Service and political columnist for MLive.com, sees it as an example of the prevailing belief that  "nice girls don't say 'vagina.'" Pointing out that Carlton is "a chiropractor with a biology degree," Demas wonders, "[M]ore than 40 years after the sexual revolution, the word 'vagina' is still considered to be as dirty as a curse word?" She also explains what the new legislation means to Michigan women:

The bill that passed the House last week would shut down most abortion providers in the state. But the GOP leadership tabled other legislation that outlawed abortion past 20 weeks, which could mean mothers who miscarry would have to deliver a stillborn baby, even if it rendered her sterile or wreaked other severe health complications.

In an opinion piece for the Detroit News published June 16, 2012, Brown expressed her frustration and the circumstances that warranted the V word:

I used that word because we were debating a women's health issue. Vagina, by the way, is the correct medical name of a part of women's anatomy lawmakers want to regulate. My statements were within the rules of the House and were clearly appropriate in relation to the bill we were discussing....

These lawmakers — predominantly men — have no problem passing laws about my vagina. But when I dared mention its name, they became outraged.

You know what? I am outraged, too....

It is not acceptable for male legislators to silence women and tell us that we can't even speak about our own bodies. And it's not acceptable for House leaders to declare that an elected representative no longer has the right to speak on behalf of her people.

National media quickly picked up on the story as did social media sites like Facebook. On Twitter, users were encouraged to tweet using the hashtags #vaginagate and #sayvagina to build momentum and support. In a groundswell of outrage similar to that engendered by  the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle and the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy, individuals spread the word even further and groups like the ACLU mobilized followers when they quickly crafted a social media campaign around the slogan, "VAGINA. Can't say it? Don't legislate it."

Feministing.com founder and author Jessica Valenti echoed the feelings of many in the blogosphere when she posted at TheNation.com:

I wished this latest GOP gaffe surprised me, but Republicans feeling squirmy about women's "down-theres" while desperately trying to keep said "hoo-hoos" in check is pretty standard these days. We live in a country where it’s fine to legislate vaginas, but saying the actual word is forbidden....

[I]t speaks volumes about the way in which Republicans would like women to participate in policy conversations that effect their health and lives: they wish we would just shut up already....

And it wasn’t just Brown who was silenced—women who had to terminate wanted pregnancies after twenty weeks because of severe fetal abnormalities were blocked from testifying in Michigan. It’s not just happening in one state, either. After all, who could forget the all-male panel on birth control?

Other high-profile advocates for women's rights got on the bandwagon.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.