Over the past 24 hours, we in Louisiana (and – oh goody! – the rest of the world, because internet) have been treated to both the proposal of a sophomoric “joke amendment” legislating weight and age limits for strippers and a massive smackdown of the Senate’s equal pay bill by a House labor committee comprised of 14 men and one woman. Specifically, 10 committee members voted to reject a bill (Senate Bill 254) that would have required private businesses to pay the same wages to men and women who perform the same work.
I’ve read lots of Facebook posts and tweets today referencing the terrible irony and/or weird coincidence of these two legislative “events” happening in such close proximity to one another. Meanwhile, amendment author Rep. Kenny Havard, R- Jackson, has staked out a privileged position of regret without apology over his “joke,” and opponents of Senate Bill 254 are congratulating themselves on saving private businesses in the state from “frivolous” lawsuits demanding pay equality.
But there’s nothing weird or ironic going on here – just a very common, very old, very tiresome story – something so well baked into the fabric of our culture that it often escapes notice:
“Asked whether he was sympathetic to other legislators who said his joke was indicative of a boy’s club culture that sidelines women, Havard said, ‘I haven’t observed that.’”
Where “women’s issues” are concerned, the old boy’s club is too often just what we saw this week: a comedy club. If something’s not treated as an outright joke, like the amendment, it’s maybe just “frivolous,” like the notion that we might want to close the nation’s highest gender pay gap and stop being at the bottom of everything. Sideline, sideshow – whatever diminishing vocabulary you use, the connecting narrative thread is that issues and legislation that are perceived to primarily affect women, or the concerns that women might raise about legislation that affects everyone, are deemed less important and less worthy of careful study and serious debate (unless it’s about what women do with their own bodies, of course – then it’s very serious).
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, pushed back against the circus atmosphere today – uncharacteristically gently, thinks Melinda Deslatte – describing the amendment debacle as “a teaching moment for all of us.” What all our elected officials could learn about, apparently, is “appreciating the important work that we do first of all, and always taking it seriously.”
That’s a great idea, really. But I suspect that part of what made Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, storm up to that microphone on the House floor yesterday is the kind of disgust and frustration that boils over particularly hotly when you know that you’ve done all the “serious” stuff – maybe you’ve taken the serious classes, read the serious books, had the serious conversations with the serious people, worn the serious clothes (that’s a must), and gotten the serious job to do the serious work – and it doesn’t matter. This infuriating situation isn’t unique to sexism, of course – it’s a general dilemma that arises whenever individual initiative runs up against usually arbitrary but stubbornly tenacious power structures protecting one privilege or another.
In this case, it’s the privilege to publicly snicker at objectifying innuendos one day and abdicate the responsibility of ensuring economic justice and dignity for Louisiana women the next.
I certainly hope that all of our elected officials learn something from this “teaching moment” and approach their jobs with renewed seriousness and renewed respect for all their constituents, especially given the gravity of the issues we all face. Because Louisiana will continue to provide the material that makes it the punchline to so many jokes if we don’t call out the worst parts of our collective personality (it seems @stephgracenola agrees!) and pledge to do better.