LANSING, Mich. - State Reps. Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum were banned from speaking but they will not be silenced. When the final votes are tallied on Nov. 6, Michigan Republicans may rue the day they barred the two leading Democratic legislators from speaking for using the words "vagina" and "vasectomy" on the House floor.
In response to last week's ban, women lawmakers and 21 professional actors came to the state Capitol steps Monday night to give a moving performance of Eve Ensler's play, "The Vagina Monologues."
Some 3,000 feisty and extremely spirited women, and a fair number of men came to hear them and to "reclaim this Capitol for our voices" as Democratic state Rep. Rebekah Warren said. Many in the crowd wore T-shirts reading, "If you can't say it, don't legislate it." Stickers in the shape of the Michigan mitten with "Vagina Voter" written on them were distributed.
Playwright Eve Ensler was there in person, having made the trip from California to "stand up for our rights." To thunderous cheers she told the crowd, "This is the real Michigan."
Democratic Senate leader Gretchen Whitmer greeted the crowd. Referring to a series of anti-women legislation pushed by Republican legislators, Whitmer said, "What we have seen in Michigan in the last 16 months is an embarrassment. We need to take a stand and that begins tonight."
What was the Republican rationale for barring the two lawmakers from speaking on the House floor on any subject?
During debate on anti-choice legislation last week, Rep. Brown said, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina, but 'no' means 'no.'"
And Rep. Byrum had the nerve to suggest that if the point is to ensure every possible child is born, then maybe vasectomies should be legislatively restricted too.
Whitmer emphasized that the real issue in the debate that led to the effort to muzzle Brown and Byrum was women's access to health care.
Republicans are pushing three extreme pieces of legislation that will ban abortions under any circumstance and regulate many health clinics out of business. Whitmer said, "I have colleagues who will do anything, by any means necessary, to try and make sure women don't get access to health care whether it's primary health care, cervical exams, or prenatal health care. That underlies all of this."
Many in the crowd were concerned about both the attack on women's rights and the right to free speech.
Katie Oppenheim, president of the Michigan Nurses Association at the University of Michigan, said, "If this legislation passes then women, even in a place like the University of Michigan, will no longer have a choice on how they want to take care of their health."
Nadja Roivas, who works at the United Auto Workers Global Organizing Institute, said, "We are criticizing other countries because women have no rights but what is happening to women's rights here? Before we can start pointing fingers at other countries we need to clean our house."
"It's ridiculous and an infringement on free speech and let's be honest, an egregious display of power," said Jay Taylor of Essexville, Mich.
He pointed out that historically, Michigan has been a progressive, tolerant state but has turned sharply to become an intolerant state towards women, ethnic minorities and religious minorities. "That a bad road to go," he added.
Canton resident Sommer Foster asked, "If you're not in favor of government regulation why are you putting so many regulations on abortion providers?"
Rep. Byrum reminded the audience, "There are two words they don't want to hear on the House floor. That's 'vagina,' 'vasectomy.' But there is one thing they don't want us to do in November and that's vote."
Photo: Representatives of the Y chromosome also attended the Lansing speak out. John Rummel/PW