No Equal Rights Amendment ratification for Oklahoma, and the state has been named the fifth worst place for women.
Women’s History Month has started with quite a bang in our state.
It appeared to get worse early last week as the state House seemed OK continuing to let children get married. Then, the miracle of democracy happened.
The debate to update the marriage law revealed how far Oklahoma has come, and yet to go.
Particularly frustrating was hearing the term “child marriage” cavalierly used and men controlling the arguments. Often, it is young girls pressured or forced into bad relationships, making this a women’s issue.
Just when modernization seemed to fail, a bipartisan bill was passed giving safeguards to vulnerable teens and keeps parents in the decision-making process.
It gives confidence government can work, but still a letdown because the year started out so hopeful for women.
Several groups — including the Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater city councils and the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition — passed resolutions urging the state join the 36 others that have ratified the ERA.
Some legal decisions have given the 48-year-old proposal new life, reviving a national movement with a couple of younger generations. The amendment still has legal obstacles to remain viable.
But advocates will move forward without Oklahoma’s support.
The Oklahoma Legislature had an ERA resolution to consider, but lawmakers wouldn’t even be bothered to put it on a committee agenda.
Members of the male-dominated Legislature did not have to go on record for how they view equal rights for women.
State lawmakers did vigorously argue about their views on the proper age of marriage.
House Bill 3873 had a roller coaster of a week. Its intent is to update the statute that allows any child to get married with parental permission. Those 15 or younger also need a judge’s signature.
Oklahoma ranks fourth nationally in teen marriage based on a 2014 data analysis by the Pew Research Center.
The original proposal from Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, banned all marriage for anyone less than 18. Personally, I’d raise it to 28, but 18 is the age of maturity.
Marriage isn’t child’s play. It’s hard and, theoretically, life-long. Consenting adults ought to be the ones making that decision.
Just before the Monday floor hearing, Dunnington added an amendment that would eliminate marriage for those 15 and younger but allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry after gaining emancipation from a judge.
It would allow leeway for older teens in special circumstances and provide protection against coerced or forced child marriages.
A reality is that some parents are not well-intentioned or are involved in criminal behavior, like human trafficking.
The proposal was made after a woman told Dunnington about getting pregnant after a sexual assault at age 16. Her parents forced her into marrying the abuser.
Recent data on marriage of minors is difficult due to county-by-county record-keeping, but Dunnington said at least 2,000 children have been married in the past five years.
Still, many lawmakers want parents to have a role in approving such marriages.
Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, argued against the measure, saying parents know more than the state and questioned if this applied to same-sex marriage. It failed 60-35.
Then, the bill reappeared Wednesday with a slight change: Parents and a judge would need to approve marriages for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, who voted against the earlier proposal, worked with Dunnington on the changes.
“What we see here is a common-sense solution to what the people of Oklahoma really want their government to be, which is for people on different sides with different philosophies on a particular issue coming together and finding a compromise that really makes sense, protects people and makes things better for people in our state,” Caldwell said. “That’s what we’ve done here.”
Dunnington said the two had “a thoughtful conversation” about how to move forward, “That’s what democracy looks like. If I had it 100% my way, this bill would have looked nothing like this.”
A few lawmakers still spoke in opposition, including Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, who said only parents should have a say and coerced marriage is rare.
It passed 78-16.
There’s plenty more the state could do to improve women’s lives, as a report from Wallet Hub shows.
This online maker of clickable lists examined about two dozen indicators to rank states and the District of Columbia on how well they provide for their women.
The only places worse than Oklahoma for women are Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Oklahoma’s most abysmal outcomes are in health care: 46th in preventive care, 48th in life expectancy and 50th in lack of health insurance.
Not covered by the report, but worth noting, is the state has one of the highest rates of female incarceration and is No. 3 in the teen birth rate, though both are improvements from previous years.
A telling statistic from the report: Oklahoma had the fifth worst voter turnout among women in the last presidential election.
In that sense, it’s no accident that women make up only 21.5% of the Legislature, nine in the Senate and 23 in the House. That’s up from 14% previously, moving from 48th to 42nd in the nation among female legislators.
Among statewide elected officials, only two are women, and only two women are appointed to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Cabinet.
Nearly 51% of Oklahoma residents are women.
Voting is the remedy to this severe under representation. Women fought hard for that right a century ago.
Without any sense of irony, the day after lawmakers refused to consider the ERA, a news release went out celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage.
Oklahoma was the 21st state to ratify the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage. It was a progressive move worthy of a pat on the back, even now.
Lawmakers ought to ask themselves what they are doing for Oklahoma women to give the state a reason for celebration in 100 years.
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!