Last session, when then-freshman Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, raised a parliamentary question about a male colleague’s bill, she says he said — growled really — “Don’t talk to me like that, little lady.” A couple of weeks ago, Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, and Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, faced literal catcalls when they got into a heated debate over a payday lending bill. "Meow," some lawmakers screeched, as the chairman reprimanded the women: "Ladies, please keep this civil."
Is there sexism in the Texas Legislature?
This week's flap over a flyer showing an infant nursing at a bare breast — an interest group's effort to portray an insurance bill as an attempt to help turn Texas into a "nanny state" — has rekindled this age-old discussion. On Thursday, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the bill's author, gave an impassioned speech decrying "hateful, resentful, bitter, despicable and violent flyers toward women" and later announced plans, along with other female House leaders, to form a women's caucus.
On Friday, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, joined the outcry, denouncing the "extremely offensive" tactics. Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, rose after her to say that men, too, were offended by the flyer, and "the idea that boys will be boys is not acceptable." (The Texas Civil Justice League, which created the "nanny state" flyer, has apologized and said it never intended for it to be circulated.)
Several female lawmakers, interviewed in the wake of the controversy, said they do not feel their gender presents problems in the Legislature.
"I have never felt ill at ease with the behavior of my colleagues in the Senate," Van de Putte told a reporter before her speech in the Senate. But she acknowledged that past members have "stepped over the line.” And she said that when she served in the House in the 1990s, that chamber had “really a 'boys will be boys' attitude.”
But Davis has a slightly different view of the upper chamber. She said that sometimes when she is introducing amendments or asking tough questions, the reception she gets is "far more hostile" than male senators ever receive. Davis would not say on the record who the current lawmaker is who called her “little lady" but added, "Men just would never receive that kind of response."
Women aren't lacking for influence in the Texas Lege. Thirty-two of the 150 House members, and six of 31 senators, are women. Many of them chair major committees, sponsor high-priority legislation and are the linchpins in tense negotiations in their chambers.
And clearly, things are far better than they were in the 1990s, when then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock famously said that if Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, would "cut her skirt off about 6 inches and put on some high-heel shoes," she could pass whatever legislation she wanted. (Zaffirini shrugged it off.)
But even today, not all women feel comfortable all of the time.
Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, took the microphone in the House Thursday after Thompson's speech and suggested that some lawmakers had pornography visible on the House floor. "Do you think this has become standard operating procedure ... with the way some of the men have treated some of the women?” she asked. (She later clarified that her comments referred to an isolated incident in which a male lawmaker displayed pornographic material on his cellphone; she declined to name the legislator.)
Davis said women are still treated differently in the upper chamber — particularly when those women are Democrats. An incident last session in which Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, told Davis, "I have trouble hearing women's voices," gave Davis pause, literally, at the time. Though she says that exchange has long since been resolved (the two now joke about it), she occasionally sees other behavior in the chamber that “crosses the line.”
"You can't be part of what has traditionally been this 'good old boy' world and be too thin-skinned," Davis said, noting that much of the improper language or behavior is largely generational. "I just try to stay calm and not let it have the intended impact."
Truitt, whose tense debate with Laubenberg prompted meowing on the House floor, said she "wasn't terribly offended" by the incident and has, during a dozen years in the Legislature, "never felt suppressed because I was female."
"Politics is a blood sport, and it's not for the thin of skin of faint of heart," Truitt said, adding: "You have 150 type-A personalities in here. This particular time of the session is emotionally charged, and people are testy and tired. We're probably doing things, saying things, we wouldn't do otherwise."
Then there are the "terms of endearment," which might raise eyebrows in, say, New York City, but are largely accepted here as a pillar of Southern culture. Male lawmakers sometimes call women "honey" or "sweetie," and women have equivalent terms for men. "I call other members 'baby.' I call [Sen. Glenn] Hegar 'cutie patootie,'" Van de Putte said.
Thompson, whose speech on Thursday caused some male House members to gather to discuss how to prevent the objectification of women in the chamber, said she doesn't think the House has a gender issue, "except for when it comes to reproductive rights."
But for some women who served in that chamber a few decades ago, the Thursday incident and the debates throughout the session over requiring sonograms 24 hours before an abortion and drastically cutting funding for family planning services are a reminder of how far things have come — or how easily they could be rolled back. Debra Danburg, who represented Houston in the House for 22 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, said the flyer flap summoned memories of her legislative efforts to encourage and educate Texans about breast-feeding, and also to overhaul the state's rape laws.
When she introduced a bill in the 1980s to strengthen rape laws, she said that some male lawmakers appeared at the back microphone, arguing, "If I can't rape my wife, who can I rape?"
Dianne White Delisi, a state lawmaker from Temple who retired from the Legislature in 2008, recalled that when she was first elected in the early 1990s, "I learned very quickly that you would be respected at the table but you had to be twice as prepared, twice as ready for your argument than the men at the table."
This remains true, she said, but she also noted that things have changed in other respects. Nowadays there are more committee chairwomen, and more women are filling other key roles, she said. Women may also be better at quietly and persistently working the back halls of the Legislature, rather than making a "big hoopla at the front mic," Delisi said.
Van de Putte acknowledged that while she does not perceive gender to be a day-to-day concern in the Senate, there are, nonetheless, differences.
"If a man cries, he's seen as heartfelt. When a woman cries, she’s seen as wimpy," Van de Putte said. "When a woman gets angry, she's 'losing it.' When a man gets angry, he's passionate. … But that's not just here — that's in every boardroom and work situation. And the media perpetuates it."
As for the men, they appear to be making some adjustments in light of the "nanny state" incident. When asked what he meant when he told the lower chamber on Thursday that some male House members would meet to discuss gender issues, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, joked, "The first rule of fight club is, you don't talk about fight club." He confirmed that a bipartisan coalition of male lawmakers is "putting their minds together" to find effective ways to make sure interest groups know such imagery is completely inappropriate — but also to take a closer look at how behavior and discourse on the House floor, which he said sometimes “pushes the line,” is perceived.
"We want [Thompson] to know we have her back," said Martinez Fischer, who brought his 2-year-old daughter with him onto the House floor on Friday. "She doesn't need that — she's the toughest member of the House. But we need to make sure to deter that kind of behavior. And we all have an example to set."
Morgan Smith and Brandi Grissom contributed to this article.