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'War on women' comes to Wisconsin recall – and could be decisive

Several bills signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker have angered women's rights activists and have motivated women to get behind the effort to recall him. 

By Kay NolanContributor / June 2, 2012

Julie Wells of United Wisconsin carries one of many boxes containing about 1 million signed recall petitions forms at the General Accounting Board in Madison, Wis., in January.

Darren Hauck/REUTERS/File

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Milwaukee

Edna Kunkel calls herself an “accidental activist.” A writer of technical and scientific manuals from Verona, Wis., she came of age at the height of the women’s movement, and she never expected to take to the streets in defense of those causes more than 30 years later. 

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In large part, Ms. Kunkel became a women’s rights activist in her 50s because of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. On one April day alone, the Republican signed a slew of laws on subjects ranging from education to abortion that many activists say amount to a “war on women.”

“Who is making this stuff up? Why is this happening now?” she recalls thinking.

Those bills did not trigger Governor Walker’s June 5 recall election. But what began last year as a backlash to the governor’s landmark antiunion bill has in many respects become a test run for the national elections to come in November, and the alleged “war on women” that has played out on the presidential stage has also taken shape here.  

In that way, Wisconsin could be a window on how the issue will play out nationwide in the fall. For one, it has made Walker’s battle to fend off his recall harder, with polls showing women viewing him far less favorably than do men. Moreover, it has kindled the fire of women like Kunkel, who are becoming politically engaged – some for the first time – as they see his reforms as unraveling the rights they fought so hard to win.

Walker’s name became especially linked with the alleged Republican “war on women” on Good Friday in early April. That’s when news came out that the previous day, Walker had quietly signed four bills.

One bill repealed Wisconsin’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which had allowed women and minorities to sue for employment discrimination at the state level. Another ended a 2010 ban on abstinence-only sex education in public schools. The remaining two banned insurance companies participating in the federal health-care reform law from covering some abortions and required an exam by a physician when a patient seeks an abortion-inducing drug.

Activists suggest that those bills were only the tip of the iceberg. Walker’s highly controversial move to end collective bargaining rights for public workers exempted law-enforcement personnel and firefighters, who are overwhelming male, while affecting wage-and-benefit negotiations for teachers and public health nurses, who are mostly female, they note. They add that a newly enacted Voter ID law creates more difficulties for women than men and that Walker’s budget cut all state funding ($2 million) for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading provider of abortions, which also provides other services to low-income women.

The Walker administration vehemently denies any such “war on women,” saying, for example, that it is merely shifting funding from Planned Parenthood to other, less controversial health providers.  Walker adds that no group of public workers is exclusively male or female, making it unfair to cast antiunion measures as anti-women.

Still, the perception continues, sparking protests. At an April 28 rally in Madison, Wis., for Unite Women, a new, Facebook-driven national women’s-rights group, Democratic state Sen. Chris Taylor declared: “Call it what you may, but when Governor Walker repeals equal pay protection for women, it sure feels like a war on women.”

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