Critics call proposed Kansas ‘women’s bill of rights’ sexist, transphobic

Lawmaker complains about rushed hearing of complex legislation, including telemedicine abortion ban

By: and - February 15, 2023 11:47 am
Caroline Dean spoke against a proposed women's bill of rights during a Feb. 15, 2023 hearing, saying the legislation doesn't actually benefit women. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Caroline Dean spoke against a proposed women’s bill of rights during a Feb. 15, 2023 hearing, saying the legislation doesn’t actually benefit women. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lawmakers unrolled a new bill that would bar transgender women from female-only spaces under the assumption that biological women tend to be naturally weaker and more vulnerable to violence than men. 

Senate Bill 180 was given about 30 minutes of discussion at Wednesday’s Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee hearing, a time frame that critics have said is woefully inadequate to address all the bill’s implications. The bill has been called a women’s bill of rights, a designation that bill opponent Caroline Dean rejected.

Dean, a pastor with the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ, and spokeswoman for the Kansas Interfaith Action, said the bill didn’t actually recognize any rights for women. 

“The irony of this ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’ is that it doesn’t enumerate any actual rights, instead focusing on weaponizing the rhetoric of rights to erase protections for transgender and nonbinary people,” Dean said. “But I can name some rights that women need: the right to pay equity. The right to be free of gendered violence and sexual discrimination. The right to have affordable childcare, and to have access to healthcare when I or my children are in need.” 

SB 180 would define “female” as people with biological reproductive systems that are developed to produce ova, an definition critics have said excludes intersex women and alienates women without ovaries. 

The bill states that separate accommodations based on biological sex aren’t unequal, and that biological women sometimes need women-only social, educational, athletic and other spaces to ensure safety. This would include domestic violence shelters, restrooms and locker rooms. 

One part of the bill says that “male individuals are, on average, bigger, stronger and faster than female individuals,” as justification for biology-based separation. Similar legislation has been introduced in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Arizona, among other states. 

Riley Gaines, a former swimmer for the University of Kentucky, said transgender people are taking over women's spaces during a Feb. 15 bill hearing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Riley Gaines, a former swimmer for the University of Kentucky, said transgender people are taking over women’s spaces during a Feb. 15 bill hearing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who has made numerous national appearances in support of transgender sports bans, said she had personally experienced unfair competition. 

Gaines swam competitively at Kentucky for four years and was a five-time SEC champion, 12-time NCAA All-American and two-time Olympic qualifier. She swam against Lia Thomas, the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in swimming. In the 200 freestyle final at the NCAA championships, Thomas and Gaines tied for fifth place. 

Gaines referenced the competition, saying people like Thomas were taking over female sports spaces at an “alarming rate,” across all athletic levels and ages, though there is little evidence of widespread competition from transgender athletes.

In an interview after the hearing, Gaines told the Reflector that the media wasn’t doing a good job of reporting on biological males competing as females but that there were many cases of it happening. 

 In Kansas, only two public school students across the state would be affected by a transgender sports ban, according to the Kansas State High School Activities Association.

Proponents speaking in favor of this bill and other anti-trans legislation have been mostly from out of the state, or from national organizations. During a Tuesday hearing about effectively banning gender-affirming care, national anti-transgender activists were flown in from North Carolina and California to give their testimony

Gaines said it wasn’t important that she had no Kansas connections because her religion and nationality qualified her to speak on the issue. 

“It doesn’t matter to me where it’s coming from,” Gaines said. “One, I identify myself as a Christian and two, I’m an American, and so I’m willing to help advocate for anyone in this nation who is having to deal with comparing themselves to a biological male.” 

Bill opponents said they did care that people from out of state were given a significant platform to speak on Kansas policies, especially with the short allotment of time given for SB 180.  Kansas ACLU policy director Aileen Berquist said she wanted more Kansas voices to be heard.  

“My understanding is that they are jumping from state to state, pushing a very specific agenda,” Berquist said. “The people who are opponents of this bill are living, working, having children and fighting this hatred in our communities every day, and they deserve to have their voices heard.” 

Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, complained that Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican who serves as chairwoman of the Senate health committee, scheduled multiple hearings on complex bills on the same day. 

After the womens’ bill of rights bill was heard, the committee had about 15 minutes to discuss a proposed ban on using telemedicine to prescribe abortion drugs. 

“I feel like we’re trying to cram through a lot of things in a very short time,” Holscher said. “And these are very serious matters. We have the professionals here, the experts here.”

Gossage told the committee members they were running out of time to consider legislation this session.

“As you know, bills came in very late this year compared to other years,” Gossage said. “That’s one of the reasons why things feel a little bit rushed, because we actually only have two days next week to finish up our hearings, and final action on bills, giving us very little time.”

She asked members if they would be willing to work on Friday this week, but Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, and Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, objected.

“I’d rather do anything but that,” Steffen said. “I have business responsibilities.”

“I know you do,” Gossage said. “we all do.”

Sens. Mark Steffen and Cindy Holscher chatted at a Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee meeting on Feb. 15, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.