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Lisa Brown: Silenced for saying (shock!) 'vagina'

By Lisa Brown, Special to CNN
June 21, 2012 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michigan state Rep. Lisa Brown said "vagina" in addressing strict anti-abortion proposals
  • Republicans decried use of the word; banned her and a colleague from the House floor
  • Women rallied to defend Brown, saying she was silenced for speaking out on health care
  • Republican men didn't get it, and if they don't wise up, they will lose their seats, she says

Editor's note: Lisa Brown is serving her second term as a state representative for Michigan, representing the 39th District, which includes Commerce Township, West Bloomfield and Wolverine Lake.

(CNN) -- One week ago, the Michigan House of Representatives was taking up some of the most restrictive anti-choice legislation in the country. It was in the context of this bill that I said, "Finally Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but 'no' means 'no.'"

You can watch me say that here. My comment is made around the 1:50 mark, and you can see exactly how the legislators seated behind me reacted. While there was a scatter of applause from my colleagues, there were no dropped jaws, bulging eyes or fainting. In fact, the only remarkable thing about their response is that there was virtually no response at all.

Not until the next day. That's when I got word that Republican House leaders had banned me and my colleague Rep. Barb Byrum from speaking on the House floor. I was shocked.

Given my speech, I could only assume it was because I spoke to my Jewish values or because I had said vagina. But later that day, Rep. Mike Callton told the press that what I had said was so vile, so disgusting, that he could never bear to mention it in front of women or "mixed company."

Lisa Brown
Lisa Brown

Since we share the same religion, I'm guessing he wasn't referring to my kosher sets of dishes. Even though Callton has a bachelor's degree in biology and worked as a chiropractor, it was the word "vagina" that did him in.

As a storm of protest grew against our silencing and women across the state started to rally around my use of the word vagina, Republicans changed course. They insisted they had no problem with vaginas. Byrum and I were being punished for our lack of decorum. We were accused of throwing a "temper tantrum."

Women protest 'vagina' censorship
Lawmaker banned for saying 'vagina'
Michigan lawmakers silenced for remarks

Take another look at the video. Do you see a temper tantrum? Does that look like a group of people shocked by what we said or how we behaved?

Vagina enters stage left -- or is it right?

When complaints about our banning picked up pace, Republicans tried again. This time, their story was that I was kept from speaking because I said "no means no."

As Republicans continued to throw mud against the wall to see what stuck, they only made it worse for themselves. Thousands of women, not only in Michigan but across the country and even around the globe, saw exactly what was going on. What they saw was a male-dominated legislative body going to great lengths to silence two women who dared speak in opposition to a measure that would limit access to our health care. They saw it, and they didn't like it.

Among the people watching this unfold was Eve Ensler, who wrote the award-winning play, "The Vagina Monologues." Ensler, who has worked for nearly 20 years to empower women and undo the shame many of us are taught to feel toward our bodies, didn't just see a group of mostly male legislators freaking out about "vagina." She saw them trying to shut women up at the same time they were trying to pass laws about our health.

She wouldn't stand for it. That's why she came to Lansing this week to lead a performance of "The Vagina Monologues." Thousands of men, women and children showed up to see it and show their support for Byrum and me.

In the aftermath of this, Rep. Jim Stamas, whose job it was to issue the edict against me, said he "honestly had no idea it would become such an issue." I find it amazing that a fellow legislator wouldn't understand why it's outrageous not to just silence me, but my 90,000 constituents.

I hope he and his fellow Republicans get it now. If not, the election this November will surprise them even more.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Brown.

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