This February, I had the opportunity to join NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia for my first ever legislative session in Richmond. We focused primarily on two bills: HB 2264, which would allow the state of Virginia to defund Planned Parenthood and HB 2267, to ensure women in the Commonwealth can receive up to 12 months of oral birth control at a time.
During one of my first volunteer trips, we traveled to Richmond to rally and witness the results of the vote on HB 2264, to defund Planned Parenthood. More importantly, we wanted to remind the assembled delegates that we were watching them and would hold them accountable for their votes.
We wanted to reinforce that they were voting not for themselves, but for their constituents.
From up in the gallery, we watched the delegates throughout the floor hearing and while the atmosphere in the gallery could be somewhat tense, the atmosphere on the floor was almost raucous. The “good old boy” delegates called loudly to each other across the floor, talked over others, and audibly groaned when someone said something they didn’t like or if the vote didn’t turn out in their favor. I can still distinctly remember one delegate who spent the majority of the session leaned so far back in his swivel chair I thought it would tip over, manspreading in the direction of the female delegate seated at his table while visibly ignoring the floor debate.
It made me furious.
I wanted my elected officials to take these matters as seriously as we did, to treat all of the legislative issues put before them with respect. Instead, it felt like there were some bills, some opinions they couldn’t be bothered to care about. And so, the bill to defund Planned Parenthood passed the House. I knew Gov. McAuliffe would likely veto the measure (he eventually did!) but the vote was still devastating.
Our next trip was, for me, the most nerve-wracking. We traveled to Richmond to give testimony to the Commerce and Labor Committee on HB 2267, the 12 months of birth control bill. The room was packed; our group just managed to find enough room to stand huddled together while we waited for the bill to come up for debate.
Nearly a dozen of us showed up, ready to share our stories before the committee. As bill after bill was presented, legislators and witnesses took up to 20 minutes to explain and defend their bills. Then it was our turn. When Del. Eileen Filler-Corn took the floor to present the birth control bill, we all lined up at the podium to testify. However, as soon as the committee chairman saw us, he placed a 5-minute time limit on our testimony.
Five minutes for a group of at least 8 women, 3 of whom were respected medical professionals, to testify. It was outrageous.
On top of that, instead of addressing us with respect, he referred to us as “you girls,” a moment so disrespectful the entire room gasped in response. Ultimately, only the three medical professionals got the chance to testify, even though we had all driven several hours to explain to our legislators just how much this bill mattered to Virginia women. As if that wasn’t enough, the chairman then allowed the opposition to provide testimony without a time limit, including a man who admitted he was religiously opposed to the entire idea of birth control and another man who chose to talk about a form of birth control (NuvaRing) that isn’t even included in the bill.
Despite these setbacks and the palpable frustration from both our group and many members of the committee, the bill passed on to a floor vote where it passed with almost unanimous support!
The disappointment I felt when the House of Delegates voted to defund Planned Parenthood was offset by the success of the birth control bill, a huge victory for reproductive rights in Virginia that we weren’t sure we’d see pass into law. Ensuring that women can receive up to 12 months of birth control at a time helps low income women, busy mothers, businesswomen, rural women, and women with limited access to transportation maintain their regular birth control schedule and prevent unwanted pregnancies. And even though I didn’t get to testify, standing as a visible witness and taking part in the legislative process was thrilling.
Overall, I had an amazing experience in Richmond. While I definitely felt infuriated at times, those moments only fueled my desire to help elect a new batch of progressive delegates this coming election season. Because of my legislative lobbying experience, I feel I’m both more informed as to how the law-making process works here in Virginia and more dedicated to continuing my activism in the future.
I cannot thank NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia enough for all of the work they do to protect women’s rights here in the Commonwealth, and I’m already looking forward to see what they have in store for election season.