In Texas, powerful women serve as mayor to some of the country's largest cities (for instance, San Antonio and, until last week, Houston). They're sheriffs of some of the nation's biggest law enforcement agencies (see Bexar and Dallas counties). Closer to home, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson leads criminal prosecutions in one of the largest metro areas in the United States.
Yet when it comes to state politics, Texas still looks like the He Man Women Haters Club, and not just because of the years-long assault on family planning services or the anti-abortion legislation so draconian that, depending on how things shake out at the U.S. Supreme Court this year, it could redefine whether women at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder have the right to choose.
As the Texas Tribune points out this week, women are still woefully underrepresented at the Capitol. While Texas has elected two women to the governor's seat, never in the state's history have women led either chamber of the Texas Legislature.
Of course sexism, whether overt or thinly veiled, has always been alive and well under the Pink Dome. Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson, a state representative for more than four decades and the longest-serving woman state legislator in Texas history, told the Texas Observer that when she first got to the Lege in 1973, “a guy called me his 'black mistress.'” When Debra Danburg, a Democrat who represented Houston in the Texas House for more than two decades, tried to strengthen rape laws in the 1980s, male colleagues stood at the mike and quipped, “If I can't rape my wife, who can I rape?” Flash-forward to 2016, and state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, is apologizing for encouraging someone to rape his spouse in an online forum several years ago (the comment: “Rape is non existent in marriage, take what you want my friend!”)
Even with gains in the House and Senate over the years, the raw numbers certainly don't inspire much confidence that gender equality is on the horizon in Texas. In the 2015 legislative session, a banner year for the Texas Senate with a record-setting eight of 31 spots held by women, only 36 of the 181 members of the entire Texas Legislature were women. Even if every woman incumbent, challenger or even long-shot candidate who's filed wins in the general election this year, women would make up only 65 of 181 spots.
The Trib quotes a bunch of experts and politicians on why exactly this might be, citing “insufficient recruitment, legislative maps benefiting incumbents – most of whom are men – and long-standing institutional inequality in politics.” Whatever the cause, the disparity makes for some depressing political theater out under the Pink Dome. Here are some more recent examples:
“I have trouble with women's voices”
Troy Fraser, in addition to being a notoriously inept legislator, has a hearing problem. That is, he apparently has a hard time listening to women, particularly those who disagree with him.
It was back in 2009 that the soon-to-be retired Republican Senator from the Hill Country was defending his restrictive voter ID bill in a marathon Senate debate when then-freshman Sen. Wendy Davis stepped up to the mike to ask some questions. After a brief exchange, Fraser told Davis he could only pick up about half of what she was saying. Fair enough. Davis said she'd speak up.
Fraser then delivered this brain-twister: “I have trouble with women's voices and I'm just not getting it.” He then went on to mansplain to Davis, since “I know you're new to the legislature,” how fiscal impact statements tied to bills work. Davis's response: “Believe it or not, I understand that a fiscal impact is based on whether there is a cost to the state.”
Men debating = politics. Women debating = meeeow
To see how some men in the legislature view their women colleagues, look no further than how they react when those women decide to...well, legislate.
In 2011, as the House debated a bill cracking down on the predatory practices of payday lenders, Republican state reps Vicki Truitt and Jodie Laubenberg got into it. As the debate grew heated — Truitt for more restrictions on payday lenders, Laubenberg against — the lawmakers, according to the Texas Tribune, “faced literal catcalls” from their male colleagues. After they got meowed at, the chairman scolded the women, saying, “Ladies, please keep this civil.”
It wasn't even an isolated occurrence. During the 2013 legislative session, as the House debated the state budget, Austin Democrat Dawnna Dukes and Brenham Republican Lois Kolkhorst got into a heated discussion over an amendment. As the debate grew more intense, men in the chamber started to meow and make angry cat noises. Here's how Tribune reporter Morgan Smith put it back then:
Part of the #TXLege experience is hearing grown-ups meow like angry kittens.— Morgan Smith (@MorganSmith) April 4, 2013
Smith later tweeted in response to a follower's question: “oh that was a literal comment – they were actually meowing at Lois and Dawnna!”
The “Nanny State”
When she filed it in 2011, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson's House Bill 2093 was about contractor insurance and had nothing to do with childcare or breastfeeding. Yet to target the bill, the super-conservative Texas Civil Justice League passed out flyers of a child nursing from a woman's bare breast, accompanied with text warning about the “nanny state.”
The flyer came amid a legislative session that saw widespread attacks on reproductive rights, from the deep cuts to women's health care and family planning services to a sonogram law that, as one federal judge put it, “compels physicians to advance an ideological agenda with which they may not agree, regardless of any medical necessity, and irrespective of whether the pregnant women wish to listen.”
The flyer brought Thompson to a boil. “During this legislative session, we've spent about 30 to 40 percent of our time kicking the reproductive organs of women down the road,” she said in an impassioned seven-minute speech on the House floor. Female colleagues, including staunch conservatives, lined up at the back mike to decry the flyer as sexist and disrespectful.
“We have not earned this disrespect in this house,” Thompson thundered. “And men, if you don't stand up for us today, don't you walk in this chamber tomorrow.”
It's hard tell whether Thompson's message stuck. The next session, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, tried to pass a measure creating lactation suites at the Capitol so women could breast feed or pump. As the Texas Observer writes, that's when Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo, “introduced a farcical amendment to make those lactation suites part of Zaffirini's office.”
Apparently breast feeding is still hilarious to some dudes.
Are those “mountains” real?
During the 2011 session, state Rep. Marisa Márquez, an El Paso Democrat, stood on the House floor to push for funding a tramway at Franklin Mountains State Park. So naturally, East Texas's Mike “Tuffy" Hamilton, the same guy who used campaign funds to lunch at Hooters, saw fit to make a crack about her breasts.
Smirking, Hamilton asked Marquez, “Will the young lady yield?”
After she said yes, Hamilton said: “Young lady, would you please tell us why your mountains are better than any of our mountains and are they man-made or are they real mountains?”
“Part of the human condition”
At the start of the 2015 legislative session, it looked like abortion finally wouldn't be an issue for lawmakers — largely because the previous session saw passage of an omnibus anti-abortion bill that, if upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court later this year, is expected to shutter all but about nine abortion providers in the state.
But Rep. Matt Schaefer had other ideas.
In an amendment the Tyler Republican shoehorned into an unrelated bill, Schaefer sought to end the 20-week abortion-ban exception for women carrying nonviable fetuses with “severe and irreversible” abnormalities (such abnormalities often don't show up until after that 20-week window). In effect, Schaefer would have the state force women to carry nonviable pregnancies to term, even against the advice of doctors.
Some Republican lawmakers were even aghast at Schaefer's proposal. Rep. J.D. Sheffield, a Republican and medical doctor from Gatesville, said, “Why should the heavy, blunt hand of the government come into that most heartrending decision?” As we wrote last year, this was Schaefer's response to critics:
Schaefer acknowledged that parents who discover late in a pregnancy that a fetus has severe abnormalities are often grieving and face a difficult decision. That shouldn't matter, Schaeffer said. Because of the Bible. Pain and hardship, Schaeffer told the House, are "part of the human condition, since sin entered the world. We should value what God values, and that's the life of the unborn."
After the debate, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat, called the 2015 legislature the most misogynistic she's seen in her 21 years in office. “I won't even go into the level of misogyny I have experienced this session — particularly worse than any other session,” Farrar said, her voice shaking. “Women are leaders of their families, whether some men in this room do not recognize that.”
Schaefer's amendment ultimately proved so toxic lawmakers pulled the entire bill for further review.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.