If you read the thousands of pages of Wyoming state law, nearly every time a person is mentioned, it is a “he.” A bill to change that custom passed first reading in the House Tuesday afternoon.
Current state law 8-1-103 specifies that the “he” pronoun in state law includes all people, regardless of gender.
House Bill 99 would require that laws passed after July 1, 2015, use gender-neutral language, except in cases that refer to a specific gender. The bill wouldn’t require language changes in past statutes.
The bill gained initial approval on a narrow vote of 30 in favor and 28 opposed. It now faces two more rounds of debate before going to the Senate.
Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) sponsored the change, along with the other 11 women legislators who make up the entire Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus. But when the draft bill came to the floor, three members of the women’s caucus stood to oppose the bill. Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna), and Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne) said their support had cooled.
“I admit I signed onto the bill in a flush of sororal enthusiasm,” said Rep. Wilson . “I would prefer to see examples of what this affects before I am ready to make a big change like this today.”
Other legislators spoke against the bill, on the grounds that it opened the door to political correctness.
“I would urge you all to stick a thumb in the eye of the political correctness police and vote this bill down,” said Rep. Harlan Edmonds (R-Cheyenne).
“I don’t think there is anyone in this body that doesn’t believe that women are equal in every respect to men,” Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) said. “My concern with passing this bill is I wonder if we are delving into the world of political correctness.”
Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), rose in support of the bill. A veteran of the legislature since 2003, Harvey said she is currently “chairman” of the House Labor, Health, and Social Services Committee.
“I am a chairman because that’s what the title is,” said Harvey. “Until the title changes, I will be madam chairman. … When you are talking about equal, I would like the respect that comes with the language, just baby steps, little things along the way, so someday, my (successor) is something besides a chairman.”
Rep. Norine Kasperik (R-Gillette) said her experience of working as a nurse alongside male nurses made her consider how she uses the words “he” and “she.”
“How we play our roles in society has changed over the years,” Kasperik said. “We need to recognize that when I am introduced as a legislator, shake my hand, not my husband’s.”
Out of the 49 male members of the House, only Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) and Rep. John Freeman (D-Rock Springs) spoke in favor of the bill.
“It is a matter of respect, to have it neutral, and have it accurate,” Freeman said.
Wyoming’s nickname is the “Equality State” because it was the first place in the nation to pass women’s suffrage. Wyoming Territory gave women the right to vote in 1869, and the first women served in juries in 1870 and 1871. Nellie Tayloe Ross served as the first woman governor in the nation from 1925-1927. Wyoming ranks top in the nation for its rate of electing women to serve as U.S. Representative in Washington during the last 25 years. The 2015 legislative session marks the first time that the Minority and Majority Floor Leaders of the Wyoming House are both women.
And yet, in the Legislature, only 12 of 90 members are women. The Wyoming Senate has just one female member, Sen. Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs). In the workplace, Wyoming has the second-largest gender wage gap in the nation, earning just 69 cents for every dollar earned by men.
“I think this is a little bill that could make such a wonderful difference,” Harvey said. “I’ve hit a glass ceiling, and I’ve hit it more than once.”
Update: On Wednesday Rep. Steinmetz introduced an amendment to make the bill only apply to resolutions, not statutes. The amendment passed 34-26. The bill now goes to third reading.