CHARLESTON — In a public hearing about legislation called “The Women’s Bill of Rights,” most speakers said the bill does nothing of the sort and, instead, is an effort to punch down on transgender people.
Some speakers countered that Thursday, saying society has reached the point that the bill is necessary to define “man” and “woman,” while specifying that public spaces like restrooms and locker rooms should be reserved under those definitions.
House Bill 5243 generated a splash last week when Gov. Jim Justice advocated for its passage along with Riley Gaines, a former competitive swimmer who is now active in political issues.
“Women are women, and women are really important, and it’s not fair,” Justice said then.
The bill mostly works by defining “female” and “male,” “men” and “women” and “girls” and “boys” and saying those terms should be used wherever state law applies.
So, for example, the bill defines a female as someone with a reproductive system “that at some point produces ova.” It defines male as someone with a reproductive system “that at some point produces sperm.”
It says, “There are only two sexes, and every individual is either male or female” and “A person’s ‘sex’ is their biological sex (either male or female) at birth.”
The bill specifies that a person with differences in sex development, a condition involving genes, hormones and reproductive organs, are not classified as a third sex.
The bill specifies that “equal” does not mean “same” or “identical” with respect to equality of the sexes.
At the public hearing in the House of Delegates chamber, speaker Isabella Cortez said the title of the bill, referring to women’s rights, seems like being offered a chocolate chip cookie only to discover raisins.
“Is this the best you’ve got? Did you just think we wouldn’t read the bill?” said Cortez, representing Fairness West Virginia. “You pretend to care about women’s rights, but we’re not stupid.”
Emily Womeldorff, speaking for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, agreed: “Never has there been a bill of rights with less actual rights in it.”
A real women’s bill of rights would include policies like assuaging the childcare crisis, improving pay equity in the workforce and fully establishing the right to abortion through statewide referendum, said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of West Virginia Free.
“Please, stop with the politics of division. West Virginia has very real problems, and our people are hurting. We cannot afford this hyper focus on culture wars that creates more suffering rather than moving us forward,” Pomponio said.
Some speakers supported the bill.
Speaker Nila Thompson described walking into a changing room for her dance class and seeing someone she identified as male. The bill, she said, would guarantee her right to privacy and protection. “I trust you will pass this bill,” Thompson said, addressing delegates.
Another speaker, Elisa Payne, said sex is biological, not a matter of self-perception.
“The science is settled,” Payne said. “We are fighting for privacy and safety in our restrooms, locker rooms and sporting arenas.”
Shortly after the public hearing, Democrats in the House of Delegates had a press conference to discuss their perception of the midway point of the legislative session. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, described this bill as an example of culture issues that have sprung up so far.
“That bill has absolutely nothing to do with women and nothing to do with rights except for taking them away from certain people. It’s about scapegoating a certain segment of our society, and it’s about elections. That’s all it does,” Pushkin said.
Pushkin, who is also chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, then made reference to a resolution intended to prompt a statewide vote on abortion rights, like some other states have done.
“If the Republican Party supermajority and the governor care about women and their rights — and they want to hear from women and everybody else in West Virginia, I suggest they follow our lead and put reproductive freedom on the ballot and let the voters decide.”