Not too long ago I saw the fabulous one woman show “Ann,” based on the larger-than-life Texas governor Ann Richards. Having had the pleasure of meeting Richards as a child while growing up in Texas, I was struck by how perfectly actress Holland Taylor managed to capture the essence of the legendary woman best remembered for her white hair and her one-liners. (“Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” she famously quipped of the first President Bush.) But I was also struck by how shocked Richards would be if she were still alive to see just how much our home state has changed, and not for the better.
Last week it was reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) vetoed a bill that would make it easier for women in Texas to sue for wage discrimination. HB 950 would have made it possible for women to take their claims to state court, a less expensive route than pursuing federal remedies.
Perry’s office argued that the bill too closely mirrored federal law, specifically the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Yet 42 states have passed similar legislation, debunking the idea that somehow federal law renders state action unnecessary or that state and federal measures cannot exist in tandem. Another reason for the veto floated by Perry’s office seems to get to the heart of the governor’s real concerns about the law. According to reports Perry feared HB 950 might lead to unnecessary regulation and hurt job creation.
In other words, how being penalized for discriminating based on gender might affect employers is of greater concern to the governor than an employee being discriminated against. I can only imagine the one-liners Richards would have had in store for Perry last week were she around today. (My guess is some of them might have included a four-letter word or two.)
Perry’s veto was another unsettling reminder of just how many steps back the Lone Star state has taken on women’s issues since being led by one of the most memorable woman leaders in American history. In addition to vetoing HB 950, Perry has made Texas one of the nation’s leading battlegrounds over reproductive rights. His efforts led to stripping Planned Parenthood of access to state funds by excluding the organization from inclusion in the state’s Women’s Health Program for low-income women. Even though the federal Hyde Amendment prevents Medicaid funds from being used for abortions, Planned Parenthood’s role as an abortion provider was used as the rationale for denying access to funding for Texas affiliates providing preventative services for Medicaid recipients — services such as contraception and breast screenings, not abortion.
In the years leading up to the Women’s Health Program showdown the state also cut funding for family planning. The fallout from these efforts has led to the shuttering of at least 50 clinics providing women’s health care, many in rural areas and low-income communities, with hundreds of thousands of women affected.
Perry’s record on reproductive health has proven so extreme that he makes his predecessor George W. Bush look like a feminist folk hero. (Despite his pro-life label Bush never waged a scorched earth war against Planned Parenthood.) His reign makes many of us nostalgic for the days of the late, great Lady Ann, the woman who reminded us that, “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Though it’s likely Gov. Richards would be appalled by the current state of things for women in her beloved Texas, particularly Perry’s anti-woman agenda, I can’t help but wonder if she would also see an opportunity. After all it was a powerful, politically connected conservative man, not unlike Perry, who once gave Richards the greatest gift of her political career in the form of his own anti-woman moment. Oilman Clayton Williams was supposed to be a shoo-in to defeat Richards for the governor’s seat until he jokingly likened rape to the weather saying, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
While Perry hasn’t made any rape jokes, he has made his feelings on women crystal clear, and as he ponders a campaign for a historic third term as Texas governor his anti-women policies could come back to haunt him nearly as much as his embarrassing presidential run.
Keli Goff is a Special Correspondent for The Root. Follow her on twitter at @keligoff and www.keligoff.com