Michigan House's actions show lack of progress

AP Photo/Detroit News/Dale G. Young

Lisa Brown, second from left, recited "The Vagina Monologues" on the Michigan Statehouse steps to protest being censored for her use of the word vagina on the House floor.

Most days don't present a ton of opportunities to think about the word vagina.

But the decision of the Michigan House of Representatives to muzzle representative Lisa Brown after she dared to use the anatomically correct word while debating an anti-abortion bill which contained that same word is entirely provocative.

Even pediatricians tell parents to use the correct terms with little children. What should she have called it? The forbidding "down there" in a room full of (alleged) adults?

Knee. Lung. Rib. Breast. Hip. Vein. Heart. Vagina.

Women have had a long and complicated history when it comes to their bodies. The female anatomy has been ignored, stuffed into corsets, worshipped and medicated. Great works of art featuring the nude female form have been draped in cheap fabric. Cleavage can scream from a billboard in Times Square, but a woman breast-feeding her baby in Central Park can face scorn on a park bench.

There was a time when women were ashamed to seek treatment for breast or reproductive cancers. They were told they would damage their ability to have children if they ran a marathon. It is only in the past 40 years that women and those complicated bodies have had federally mandated access to public playing fields.

Whether it's birth control or Title IX, the ground women have staked since the era of the Equal Rights Amendment fight has always been in dispute, much like an island between two foes in a neutral sea. What women have gained is not won for all time, but for right now.

Just when you think there is a measure of respect for female anatomy, a lawmaking body declares that the vagina is the unspeakable.

It's political because the Michigan House is controlled by Republicans, and Brown is a Democrat. Brown -- and other owners of aforementioned vaginas -- are fighting for the members of their constituency who also own vaginas and could be directly affected by the proposed legislation. And it's political because a right-wing radio host was totally cool with using the invective "slut" to tarnish a woman with whom he disagreed when talking about birth control this spring.

For Camilla Eckersley, the issue is familiar.

When she was a junior at Lincoln High School in 1988, Eckersley was suspended for using an obscenity. At that time, a club at the Lincoln, Neb., school had started a campaign against drunken driving and produced a T-shirt that included the phrase, "Don't be a Dick." A friend of hers was in a silk-screening class, and they made shirts with the word vagina. Call it a plea for equal time.

When Eckersley wore the shirt to school and refused to turn it inside out, she was sent home with the explanation the word was obscene.

Vagina was deemed an obscenity, but no one had a problem with the "Don't be a Dick" shirts.

There was no "Vagina Monologues" in 1988, but that didn't stop some students from holding a protest on the steps of the school, complete with signs borrowed from biology textbooks and Georgia O'Keeffe. I remember because I spent my lunch hour chanting "obscenities" that day.

Eckersley, who now lives in Seattle, sees a parallel between what happened to her and Brown despite the different circumstances. She said in both cases a group of people in power decided what women should be allowed to do.

"There's this exclusion, and everyone gets to be buddy-buddy," she said.

And, she added, it's about shaming women.

You can't say that. You don't belong here. No girls allowed.

One thing that is just as true today as it was in '88: Remaining quiet is never the answer.

There is sometimes a complacency, the idea we will always progress on gender equity issues, that IBM CEO Ginni Rometty is on her way to membership at Augusta National, that a woman will go on to be president within the next 15 years.

But then you wonder how that can happen when Michigan representative Mike Callton can explain his reaction to hearing the word vagina: "It was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company."

He would not use the word vagina around women?

What a penis.

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