'New Day' for Women in Annapolis

March 29, 1994

Something revolutionary is happening in the State House. Over a two-day span last week, women legislators seized the initiative and won unexpected and convincing victories against the odds. It was a telling display of political muscle-flexing that could foreshadow an even more impressive demonstration of woman-power following the fall elections in redrawn legislative districts.

"It's a new day," said an elated Del. Jennie Forehand of Montgomery County after the 36 women delegates united to deliver a stunning -- and overdue -- rebuke to the House Judiciary Committee, which had eviscerated a domestic violence bill. A day earlier, women senators had spearheaded an effort to abolish the state's 15-year near-ban on abortions for poor women. They won that fight, too, by a substantial margin.

The battle on the two bills is far from over. While the domestic violence measure appears in good shape -- the bill makes it easier to prosecute abusive treatment of a spouse or child -- the Medicaid abortion amendment faces considerable difficulties because it is attached to the governor's proposal to cap welfare payments if a recipient has an additional child.

Still, these dramatic votes marked a turning point for women's rights in Annapolis. No longer can male-dominated committees ignore legitimate grievances that happen to involve the rights of women. In the future, for instance, the lawyer-dominated Judiciary Committee -- in which 18 of the 22 members are men -- had better consider the broader societal implications of a bill before stripping it bare, especially when that bill happens to be the No. 1 priority of women's groups.

The panel's action enraged and galvanized women legislators. They accused male delegates on the committee of rendering the bill meaningless so they could claim credit on the campaign trail for favoring a domestic violence bill -- even while killing off real reform efforts.

In a rare move, the women challenged and then defeated the committee on the House floor. A few enlightened members of the committee deserted Chairman Joseph Vallario on the vote -- a telling statement. Every female delegate, be she Democrat or Republican, black or white, conservative or liberal, rural, suburban or urban, supported this rebellion. So did sympathetic male delegates. It was an unprecedented moment.

The ease with which senators swept away the restrictions on state-paid abortions again illustrates the growing importance of women in shaping the legislative agenda. That role could expand dramatically after this year's elections -- the first since redistricting. Many more women could win seats in the General Assembly. Veteran women legislators may be in line for major committee chairmanships in 1995.

A "new day" is indeed dawning.

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