News this week that State Representative Lisa Brown has been banned indefinitely from speaking on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives because of using the word ‘vagina’ has, quite rightly, caused a bit of a kerfuffle. The controversy occurred during a debate on the state’s anti-abortion bill, which Brown voted vehemently against, telling the bill’s supporters, “I’m flattered that you want to get in my vagina, but no means no”.
Ari Adler, spokesman for the Speaker of the House Jase Bolger gave a statement on the ban, saying that Brown’s comments and behaviour“failed to maintain the decorum of the House of Representatives”, and that the Speaker needed to ensure a “proper level of maturity and civility”.
The implication that Brown was behaving ‘immaturely’ seems, frankly, ludicrous. It isn’t as though she offered to show the House her foo-foo as long as everyone else got out their winkles, then vaulted over the bench and threatened everyone cooties and a chinese burn. When it comes to maturity, one might expect that the male representatives of the house would be able to hear mention of the big V (That Which Must Not Be Named) without keeling over in horror. But no: apparently, it’s not enough that we’re discussing taking away a woman’s freedom of choice about her own body. Now, we’re discussing taking away her freedom to even refer to it.
Brown’s colleague Barb Byrum, another pro-choice member, was also ruled out of order after protesting at being silenced when proposing an amendment to the bill, which (as a clear violation of house rules) is more understandable. However, when the circumstances of her silencing are taken into account, things begin to look a little more sinister. Byrum’s amendment proposed that doctor’s should require medical proof of a man’s life being in danger before they were permitted to carry out a vasectomy; an idea which would place men on more of an even keel with women if the anti-abortion bill passes, and so exposes the latent misogyny and blatant ridiculousness of the bill itself. Rather than tackle the issues raised by Byrum’s amendment, she was simply shut down.
Of course, strict rules are enforced in many countries about what constitutes ‘parliamentary’ and ‘unparliamentary’ language. In our own country, Tom Watson was once banned for the commons for referring to Michael Gove as a “pipsqueak”, which is undeniably inappropriate (if accurate). But the word ‘vagina’ is hardly an offensive term, with all its glaring medical and scientific accuracy. So why is it deemed so inappropriate that we aren’t even allowed to mention it during a debate that’s about it?
Again, Mr Adler’s choice of language is illuminating; referring openly to one’s vagina is a case of “decorum”. It lacks propriety; it’s unladylike, it isn’t ‘becoming’. This isn’t to do with unparliamentary language: this is to do with the long-established patriarchal desire to repress and control female sexuality, which is particularly alive and well in conservative America. With leaders like Rick Santorum telling us that sex is only for procreation and that sensible condom-use is “counter to how things are supposed to be”, and people like Reverend Jessie Lee Peterson making regular appearances on Fox News to warn that “wherever women are taking over, evil reigns”, basic feminist premises such as sexual and reproductive freedom, abortion rights and even equal pay are often associated with the supposed “downfall” of America. With that in mind, it’s almost a surprise that Brown was even allowed into the House of Representatives in the first place.
So now, whether he intended to or not, the Speaker of the House of Representatives has sent a stark message. Woman will be allowed to play with the big boys, as long as they don’t threaten the status quo and avoid mentioning the fact that they’ve got ladybits tucked away underneath their pencil skirts. And a woman that speaks out against legislation denying her control over her own body may soon find herself denied control over her own voice.