Jeffrey Phelps / AP

Women’s rights take center stage in Wisconsin governor’s race

Some women feel marginalized by Gov. Scott Walker’s stance on issues such as abortion, health care and equal pay

With the midterm election mere weeks away, the Wisconsin gubernatorial race is heating up. But when it comes to women’s rights, civil rights attorney Carousel Bayrd said, the swing state seems frozen in the past.

A sexual assault survivor and mother of two, she said the state’s current Republican administration has failed to protect women’s rights. “I’m scared something could happen to my daughters and we won’t have access to health care to help them,” said Bayrd, who serves as a Dane County board supervisor in the state capital, Madison. “It’s scary. These are the things that keep me up at night.”

Current polls show voters deadlocked between Democratic candidate Mary Burke and Republican incumbent Scott Walker. Throughout the campaign, Burke’s edge among women has ranged from 6 to 18 percentage points, while Walker maintains the lead among men.

Female discontent with Walker often starts with health care. Holli Harrington is a real estate agent by day and bartends nights and weekends. Her husband, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, works full time in construction. Earlier this year, the couple lost eligibility for BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s Medicaid program. The notification came after Walker refused federal money to expand Medicaid coverage, leaving the state with $100 million in costs over the next two years and dropping  from the program 57,000 adults living just above the federal poverty line.

Harrington managed to sign her husband up for federal Veterans Affairs coverage, and her toddler son receives health coverage, thanks to a 2009 act signed by President Barack Obama. But Harrington, 26, has gone without health care for almost a year. She’s skeptical when she hears the governor say he cares about women. She said she finds him “condescending” and plans to vote for Burke.

Though not all share Harrington’s view, she is definitely not alone. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz chastised Walker in harsh remarks last month, saying he has given “women the back of his hand.” Critics charged that her comments were too much of an allusion to domestic violence and crossed the line.

Since taking office in 2010, Walker has pushed an agenda that includes repealing a law to promote equal pay and a budget that resulted in drastic cuts to Planned Parenthood. In 2013 he signed a controversial bill that demands that women seeking abortions first undergo ultrasounds and prohibits doctors without nearby hospital admitting privileges from performing abortions, potentially limiting access to safe procedures for rural and low-income women.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists refute the medical need for such a rule. Planned Parenthood challenged the law within hours of its passage, and it remains blocked pending appeals. Another currently blocked law forbids women to take medication to nonsurgically induce abortion.

Also, Walker eliminated comprehensive sex education, replacing it with an abstinence-based curriculum. After his legislative efforts to abolish contraceptive insurance coverage failed, he blocked enforcement of the state law requiring insurance companies to cover birth control. He justified this unilateral move with this year’s controversial Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling, which allowed employers with religious objections to deny contraceptive coverage.

The Walker and Burke campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.

Bayrd and Harrington said they especially worry about Walker’s elimination of Planned Parenthood funding, which ended a 16-year relationship between the state and the family planning organization. Five Planned Parenthood clinics have closed in the past year, leaving 22 open, only three of which provide abortions.

“There’s plenty of people out there who’re doing the responsible thing and going to school, working and using Planned Parenthood to look after themselves, to put themselves in a better position to raise a family the right way later,” Harrington said. “It’s terrible. Especially with as hard as it is to get health care in the first place.”

Sara Finger, the founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, said she finds the Walker administration’s attitude toward women infuriating. His campaign recently aired an advertisement in which he reiterated his anti-abortion beliefs and said he supported “legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options.”

“I’m honestly disgusted,” Finger said of the ad. “If he had his way, he would outlaw abortion altogether, no matter the circumstance. By restricting access to comprehensive health care, he’s hurting women and compromising the safety of women’s health in this state. To say he’s looking out for women’s safety is just a blatant lie.”

Mary Young, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in the Milwaukee area, called the ad disingenuous, considering the state’s barriers to ensuring access to contraception. A former educator, she said she fears a lack of funding for family planning will lead to an increase in unplanned pregnancies, which will fuel problems related to chronic poverty and education.

“It’s just about belittling women and bullying them into a lifelong responsibility that they don’t want and that they’re not ready for,” she said. “You have to be ready and willing to be a mom. You just do. It’s way too important. It’s way too hard of a job. And it’s also really expensive.”

Despite the outrage Walker elicits in some, current numbers show half the state’s voters identifying with the incumbent’s agenda.

Courtney Mullen is the vice president of the College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Originally from Green Bay, the 21-year-old senior said she finds it offensive that candidates often target women as a homogeneous group concerned only with women’s issues.

“I don’t always view things through the lens of a woman,” she said. “I try to think for Wisconsin citizens as a whole, and I think Wisconsin has been improving for the past four years. There’s always room for more improvement, and if we re-elect Gov. Walker, that’s the best way to move Wisconsin forward.”

Mullen also dismissed the war-on-women criticism of Walker. In fact, she sees him as supporting women’s rights. “They have poured $15 million into domestic violence shelters and prevention, which is a lot of money,” she said. “And most of the victims are women.”

She cast her first-ever ballot in the heated 2012 recall election, in which Walker prevailed. The recall came after he signed legislation effectively eliminating collective bargaining rights for most public employees, polarizing the state and prompting mass protests.

“As a female voter,” Mullen said, “I value jobs and taxes. It’s not the traditional women’s issues, but all of those things affect me as a female. And I value those things too.”

Young agrees with Mullen that women should consider a wide range of issues. She points to the fight over union rights as one example, as well as deep education cuts. “There are [teachers] making a lot less money than they were,” she said. “It’s impacted a lot of women financially.”

If Wisconsin politics continue in their current direction, Young said she and her husband would consider moving, even though she has called the state home her entire life. She said she wants her kids “to grow up in a community that is progressive, that looks to the future.”

“This election is Wisconsin’s chance to regain our trust,” Young said. “If Walker wins again … maybe this isn’t a place we want to be anymore.”

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