A Nebraska Woman Says Aloud She Is an ‘F' Word

An author committed to equal rights for women says folks in her state sometimes reach for their garlic necklaces when she reveals she is a feminist. Also: Update on Maria Teresa Macias trial.

Bonnie Coffey

LINCOLN, Neb. (WOMENSENEWS)-Somewhere in the middle of the country is a land that time is forgetting. Known for its pioneer spirit, it holds what is almost an endangered species.

They are few and far between; they are hardy and steadfast and are growing increasingly weary. But yes, Virginia, there are feminists in Nebraska.

Wistfully, these women in Nebraska read of vigorous rallies, marches, demonstrations and victories for women's rights in other parts of the country, wishing they could participate in the same sort of successes and public camaraderie. We long for nationally known feminists to visit our state, to give us a badly needed boost, to lift our sometimes sagging spirits. Unfortunately, being a feminist in this state on the plains is nothing short of a major challenge.

In Nebraska, the ‘F' Word Is Feminist

Here, you will find the word “feminist” uttered with distaste and disdain; it really is the “F” word. Those who bravely assert their feminist beliefs are subjected to disparaging remarks as to one's patriotism or sanity. Letters to newspaper editors-from both men and women-reinforce the reality that feminists are generally not welcomed or wanted.

Nebraska has a history of actions that could easily discourage a women's rights activist: Nebraska's law banning so-called “partial-birth” abortion was struck down by a vote of 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2000. The Nebraska Unicameral Legislature, the only supposedly non-partisan, single-house state legislative body in the country, this year passed overwhelmingly a fetal homicide bill-nurtured along by professional lobbyists for the Roman Catholic church. The bill's sponsor and Catholic governor are special speakers at annual “right to life” events, vowing that they will do all they can in the Unicameral to ensure that group's success.

The Institute on Women's Policy Research ranked Nebraska 50th nationally for reproductive rights because of state policies that restrict abortion by mandating parental consent and waiting periods, and the lack of accessibility to infertility treatments and abortion for women living in poverty. Only 3 percent of Nebraska counties have abortion providers, the institute found.

Catholic Girls Remain Barred from Serving at Altar

The political popularity for restraints on women and girls does not stop there, though. Not by a long shot. The Catholic diocese in Nebraska is one of only a few dioceses in the country that still have only “altar boys.” Girls are forbidden from serving at the altar.

This year, the Unicameral defeated a measure that would outlaw discrimination against homosexuals. The Nebraska state government has been taken to court for starting the clock too early for families on welfare, cutting short much-needed government assistance. One county judge ruled that the state Health and Human Service System “has exceeded its authority and has improperly modified, altered or enlarged the provision of the Welfare Reform Act.”

The “anti” activists work overtime, publicly opposing anything to do with supporting women, affirmative action or human rights. One detractor actually declared publicly that Nebraska didn't need affirmative action because it was “the most diverse region in the country.” Wow.

Nebraska, along with Texas, ranks dead last in the nation for the smallest percentage of decline in the rate of births to teen-agers. Voters in the state defeated a proposal to change the state constitution to include references to both genders. The Nebraska Board of Education stuck to its “abstinence only” guns, decreeing in 2001 that education on HIV/AIDS in schools would not include information on condoms or safe sex.

Nebraska boasts one of the country's highest female employment rates in the country, but in its “Making the Grade on Women's Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card 2001,” the National Women's Law Center awarded Nebraska an “F” for the percentage of women without health insurance, its infant mortality rate, women living in poverty, and its gender wage gap. It's obvious that plains government and plains business hasn't seen fit to rectify these discrepancies.

What Is Your Definition of a Feminist?

When I first arrived in Nebraska 13 years ago, I freely referred to and introduced myself as a feminist. I began to notice that people would, more often than not, take a couple of steps back when they heard that word. Many men would actually act as if they were looking for necklaces of garlic to throw around their shoulders to protect them from my evil aura.

After seeing too many startled faces, I learned to alter my responses a bit. “You're not a feminist, are you?” these plains people would ask. “Well, that depends,” I responded, “on what your definition of a feminist is. If you think a feminist is someone who doesn't shave her armpits or legs, dances by the light of the moon and casts spells, then I guess I don't fit that definition of a feminist.

“Feminism,” I continued, quoting my favorite bumper sticker, “is the radical notion that women are people.”

Many times, that still doesn't help. To them, I am forever lost, having turned my soul over to some set of beliefs that have simply not found fertile ground to grow and flourish in Nebraska. But I-and others-continue to try.

Bonnie Coffey has lived in Nebraska for 13 years and has learned to love prairie winds and astounding sunsets. She is the author of a book, “Dreams For Our Daughters.”

For more information:

National Women's Law Center”Making the Grade on Women's Health:
A National and State-by-State Report Card 2001,” Chapter 2, page 22:
(Adobe PDF format)

Institute for Women's Policy Research
“The Status of Women in Nebraska: Highlights:”
(Adobe PDF format)