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Nebraska advocates say ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’ does not focus on needed priorities


Nebraska advocates say ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’ does not focus on needed priorities

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Zach Wendling
Nebraska advocates say ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’ does not focus on needed priorities
A parade in favor of women's suffrage, the right to vote, in 1913. (National Archives)

LINCOLN — Two of the state’s largest women’s rights groups say a new “Women’s Bill of Rights” misses the mark when seeking to support Nebraska women.

Gov. Jim Pillen on Aug. 30 signed the executive order, which defines “male” and “female” for the state’s executive branch and varying agencies, boards and commissions based on the development of peoples’ reproductive systems.

In that “Women’s Bill of Rights,” a “female” is defined as someone whose biological reproductive system is developed to produce ova and a “male” as someone whose biological reproductive system is developed to fertilize the ova of a female. 

Legislatures in Kansas and Tennessee have passed laws with similar definitions while Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, like Pillen, signed an executive order in August.

However, Erin Feichtinger, policy director for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, said she thinks there are no rights included in the “bill of rights.” It also comes after countless policies and ideas have been brought to the Legislature.

“Instead, what we got was an executive order that tells us what our genitals are,” Feichtinger said. “I fail to see in even the wildest stretches of my imagination how this gives women rights.”

Pillen to advocate for single-sex spaces

Pillen said in a statement nearly identical to the one he issued when he signed the order that it is “common sense” that men do not belong in women-only spaces.

“I will continue to protect our kids and women’s athletics by ensuring single-sex spaces are provided for women’s sports, bathrooms and changing rooms,” Pillen said in a statement.

The statement did not answer a question of what further protections Pillen would support.

Other priorities exist ‘to infinity’

Since its founding, the Women’s Fund has fought for thoughtful policies to support women in all aspects of their lives, Feichtinger said. However, lawmakers are seeking to use transgender women to “protect” women, she added, when what women need is support.

“Please do not use some faux concern for Nebraska women to further marginalize a population that we identify with,” Feichtinger added.

MaryLee Moulton, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska, said Pillen’s order is “another volley” in a culture fight that continues to be waged in Nebraska.

“As a woman, personally, I don’t want to have my womanhood held up to oppress somebody else,” Moulton said.

Moulton said the state needs to address issues as if they’ve asked “average Sally on the street” what they would want, which is “not rocket science.”

Feichtinger and Moulton listed alternative efforts the state could do to support women, such as:

  • Closing the gender wage gap.
  • Improving maternal mortality rates and health care deserts.
  • Fully funding domestic violence shelters or programming.
  • Ending gender-based violence.
  • Providing free period products or mammograms.
  • Establishing a system for family or paid sick leave.
  • Reducing the cost of child care.
  • Building affordable, safe and habitable housing.

“Why are you releasing a woman’s bill of rights that doesn’t address any of the substantive real issues of what’s important to women in Nebraska?” Moulton questioned.

Feichtinger said there are things to address “to infinity” and policies remain pending in the Legislature for diaper changing station accommodations in men’s bathrooms or to provide a sales and use tax exemption for diapers. They are led, respectively, by Omaha State Sens. Terrell McKinney and John Cavanaugh.

Two organizations in support

Deb Portz, president of the Nebraska Federation of Republican Women, said the executive order provides reinforcement of the federation’s defined membership.

The federation’s organizational bylaws limit primary membership to Republican women and have since 1956, according to Portz. She said the order allows the federation to fulfill its mission “with even more effectiveness to promote the ideals and policies of the Republican party.”

“NeFRW welcomes this added clarification with Governor Pillen’s executive order to help us increase the effectiveness of women in the cause of good government through political participation,” Portz said in an email.

Susan Spahn, president of the Omaha Liberty Ladies, said she and her board support the executive order “100%.”

“He acknowledged women are women and men are men,” Spahn said in an email. “Changing one’s appearance does not alter the reality of biology.”

Spahn said the Omaha Liberty Ladies, a multi-partisan collaboration of conservative women united to education and advocate for liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, is also supporting State Sen. Kathleen Kauth’s Legislative Bill 575, the Sports and Spaces Act.

LB 575 would define K-12 sports, bathrooms and locker rooms as male or female based on sex at birth. Kauth has indicated it will be her personal priority in 2024.

Pillen’s order is set to expire at the effective date of state law governing sports participation and prescribing when single-sex dedicated services or facilities should be provided.

Kauth’s 2023 legislative priority, LB 574, the Let Them Grow Act, restricts gender care for minors, including puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, and bans transition surgeries after this Sunday, Oct. 1. The state chief medical officer, Dr. Timothy Tesmer, is charged to regulate blockers and hormones.

The executive order does not include the word “transgender” nor does it carry the weight of law or judicial rulings. However, it does provide guidance to agencies, such as Tesmer in the Department of Health and Human Services.

‘Full recognition as human beings’

Feichtinger said the order creates fear and intolerance and puts more women in danger because it gives a “license” to interpret or police anyone’s body.

“We don’t need protection from anyone,” Feichtinger said. “What we need is full recognition as human beings.”

Moulton said she thinks the role of a leader, such as Pillen, is to take the tone down. Instead, it remains at a “hot boil” and has caused the Legislature “to basically be ripped apart.”

There are ways to discuss issues in a much more nuanced, friendlier way, she added, and some of the issues proponents have identified in LB 575 could be done in a way that doesn’t ostracize or target what is a small handful of trans youths.

“Let’s find ways to support all Nebraskans and not tear all Nebraskans down. Find ways to uplift them all,” Moulton said. “I don’t think that that’s asking too much.”