House Democrats come up short in Hail Mary play to defeat ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates engaged in a confusing game of one-upmanship on Friday, as the Democratic minority devised a strategy to try to defeat the self-titled “Women’s Bill of Rights” that seemingly caught their Republican counterparts off guard.

Despite its name, the bill, HB 5243, has been lauded for its exclusion of the guarantee, protection, or creation of any rights for West Virginia women. As the bill seeks to do little more than define the terms “man” and “woman,” and codify into law that there are only two genders, it has been deemed by its opponents to be nothing more than a poorly disguised attack on the transgender community. 

Rather than debating the bill for what it contains, however, the argument presented by House Democrats began and ended with the bill’s name. And that argument was made through amendment after amendment.

“The title, ‘Women’s Bill of Rights,’ really caught my eye, so I wanted to add an amendment,” Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, told colleagues in the House Chamber. “I wanted to talk about what a ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’ could look like if women had equal rights under the law.”

“What it (amendment) will do, is it will remove the tax on feminine hygiene products in West Virginia,” Young continued. “It will provide access to free feminine hygiene products to all women who are incarcerated in West Virginia. It will require implicit bias training for perinatal health professionals, and different data and reporting for maternal morbidity and mortality.”

As Young explained, her proposed amendment would also provide, among other things, “general healthcare freedom,” it would implement fair-pay and pay-transparency, and remove the statutory-exemption for marital rape. 

“This is our ‘Women’s Bill of Rights,’” Young said. “We think it’s vital for women to have equal rights under the law, as we should be guaranteed in West Virginia.”

At the conclusion of Young’s explanation, Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, said, “Obviously I rise in opposition to this amendment. […] It would completely frustrate the purpose of this bill.”

“It would completely replace what the bill is […] with other what should be separate bills for the consideration of this body,” Fast continued, “And a lot of those separate bills have been considered by this body and have been rejected.”

In response to Fast, Del. John Williams, D-Monongalia, said, “(Fast) said this frustrates the purpose of the bill, but I want to talk about who’s really frustrated […] and that’s the women in the State of West Virginia.”

Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, also countered Fast, noting, “I respectfully disagree that this should be separate bills – it’s called the ‘Women’s Bill of Rights.’”

Hansen then shifted focus to the marital rape exemption which currently exists in West Virginia code, saying, “We’re not living in some ancient society where women are property, it’s 2024. And current state code allows a husband to sexually abuse his wife.”

“So here’s a right that we could add to the ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’ that I think should be a no-brainer for most of us in this room – you should not have a right to sexually abuse your wife,” Hansen added.

Rising in opposition was Del. James Akers, R-Kanawha, who said, “Not every piece of legislation is supposed to solve every societal issue that exists.” 

“We all know what’s going to happen,” Akers continued. “If we vote against this amendment, we will probably all collectively as a group be accused of not supporting equal pay for women. That’s something we can all expect to see happen.”

Akers argued that the sole purpose of HB 5243 is to prevent biological males from entering the private areas assigned to biological females in an effort to protect them from potential harm. 

Conversely, rising in support was Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, who commended Young for drafting an “actual ‘Women’s Bill of Rights.’”

“She (Young) drafted an actual bill that relates to women and granting them rights,” Pushkin said, “And addressing real issues and real problems that women face in West Virginia every day, not perceived threats that may or may not happen in the future – not assigning ‘scapegoat’ status to a certain segment of our society.”

“There was a lot stated that this changes the purpose of the bill,” Pushkin added. “Of course it does. We should change the purpose of the bill. We should take this opportunity to pass a real ‘Women’s Bill of Rights,’ and do something for more than half of the State of West Virginia. They’ll thank you for it.”

After the House took a brief recess, Republicans seemed to have regained their bearings, and returned with an amendment to Young’s amendment, this being in the form of a proposal from Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, which sought to nullify all but the marital rape exception portion of Young’s amendment. 

Del. Kathie Hess Crouse, R-Putnam, the bill’s original sponsor, rose and said, “I will stand in support of the amendment to the amendment.”

Steele’s proposal was adopted, bringing the House to the next Democrat-proposed amendment, this time presented by Hansen.

According to Hansen, the bill’s failure to include any definition for the term “equal” could be potentially problematic, adding that these oversights can often happen when legislative proposals originate from outside of the state. Hansen then cited “womensbillofrights.com” as the source of the language contained in HB 5243.

Hansen’s amendment sought to exempt the Human Rights Act from the terms of the bill, as the new language would create ambiguity. 

“The unintended side effect is that the West Virginia Human Rights Act which prevents discrimination based on sex would no longer do that,” Hansen said. “Because of this bill that came from ‘womensbillofrights.com,’ equal would no longer mean equal.”

Fast again rose in opposition, as did Crouse. 

“I find it unbelievable that, in 2024, the body would vote to remove equal rights for women under the Human Rights Act,” Hansen noted. 

After roll call was demanded, Hansen’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 81 to 10.

A second amendment proposal from Young sought to include language stating that all adult West Virginians have autonomy regarding their personal healthcare decisions. Both Fast and Crouse, yet again, rose in opposition. 

Again roll call was demanded, and again the amendment was defeated 81 to 10.

After debate had finished and the dust was settled, HB 5243 was nearly identical to the way it was to begin the day. The only change is that, should the bill become law, it will finally be a crime in West Virginia to sexually assault your spouse. 

HB 5243 will be on third reading Monday. RealWV will provide updates regarding the status of the bill as additional information becomes available. 

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