On March 1, 1848, Governor Reuben Chapman signed into effect a law whereby Alabama, acting ahead of more historically (and currently) “progressive” states such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Wisconsin, became one of the earlier states in the Union to afford married women the legal right to fully own property in their own name, and not subject to the automatic ownership and control of their husband, as had been the case at common law. (1847 Ala. Acts 79 (1848) for the documentally inclined.)
On August 14, 2010, the State Democratic Executive Committee took an embarrassing step sideways, if not backward, when it tabled a proposed amendment to its Bylaws that would have made the President of the Alabama Federation of Democratic Women an ex officio member of the Executive Board of the SDEC. When the SDEC reconvened on August 26, 2010, to strip Kenya Marshall of her Jefferson County judicial nomination and replace her with Elisabeth French, First Vice Chair Nancy Worley (as I was told; I was not there) ruled out of order a motion to take the proposed amendment up off the table.
An aside on parliamentary procedure. According to the SDEC Bylaws, the primary procedural authority for the SDEC is the Rules of the Alabama House of Representatives. Under the provisions of Rule 26 of those rules, the Motion to Remove from the Table is recognized as a valid motion. While not specifically covered in those Rules, the Motion to Take from the Table (the difference is purely semantic) is held to be timely if made at the next session of the body, within that calendar quarter. Robert, Henry M., Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, (10th ed. 2000) p. 206. The August 26 meeting satisfied that deadline. If, as I understand, no other main motion was pending, and no other SDEC member had the floor when the attempt was made to remove (or take) the amendment from the table, it was clearly in order. The Party Bylaws specify that any matter of unfinished business is considered to be in order at any meeting of the SDEC, whether or not in the call. Bylaws, Art. VI § 3. A note to proponents: the main motion to adopt the amendment would now be considered dead by most parliamentary law authorities, not having been taken from the table before adjournment of the next meeting. You’ll need to make a new motion to adopt it, and comply with the Bylaws’ notice provisions before you do.
Though fun, the parliamentary-trivia interlude is now over.
What remains is to express my disappointment, sorrow, and ire at the actions of the SDEC leadership at their manifest opposition to this amendment to the Bylaws. For two straight meetings of the SDEC, the amendment has been thwarted by questionable calls from the Chair (first by Chairman Joe Turnham; in his absence on August 26, by First Vice Chair Nancy Worley). Since the amendment’s proponents were denied their clearly-articulated call for a division of the house at the August 14 meeting (and I was in attendance there), it’s not possible to say with certainty that a majority of the Committee supports it, but the voice vote to table it was certainly close, if not audibly defeated. Nothing leaves people feeling more alienated and unenthusiastic than leaving a meeting with the sense that they have been cheated. The middle of a general election campaign is probably the worst possible time to do that to a significant group of supporters.
Not only did these actions leave bad tastes in a lot of Democratic mouths, they gave the GOP a wide-open shot to run down the Democratic Party’s long-stated commitment to gender equity. As Chief Pig Mike Hubbard was heard to squeal:
The Alabama Democrat [sic] Party has once again shown just how big their tent really is as they have denied the President of the Alabama Federation of Democratic Women the right to have a seat on the Party’s Executive Board. The Alabama Republican Party is proud that Mrs. Elois Zeanah, President of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, and all previous and past Presidents of the organization are, by nature of their position, automatically afforded a seat on the Party’s Steering Committee.Regardless of the procedural and PR issues surrounding the suppression of this amendment, it’s simply something that is the right thing to do. With the possible exception of the men and women of organized labor, no one contributes the person-hours to the endless and thankless tasks of staffing headquarters, stuffing envelopes, working phone banks, and knocking on doors, than do the members of AFDW. And if their contributions of “sweat equity” to the Democratic enterprise were not enough, they are increasingly important to the Party’s fundraising effort, as traditional large contributors give way to the grassroots in the Internet era.
The main argument made against the amendment is that since the First Vice Chair, and Chair, of the SDEC must be of opposite gender, at least one woman is assured to be on the Executive Board. This is not persuasive. As I have noted before, there is no provision for the elimination of the positions of Vice Chair of Minority Affairs should a person of color be elected to the Chair or First Vice Chair position.
Another problem with the current setup is that women are not allowed to elect the “women’s” representative on the Executive Board, as the Minority Caucus is permitted to elect the Vice Chair for Minority Affairs. Whether the Chair or First Vice Chair is the mandated woman in the apexal dyad of the SDEC, that woman is elected by the entire Committee, not by the constituency she is supposedly representing. In this case, what is good for the ganders is good for the geese. And as a matter of principle, these constituencies should each select their own representatives among the Vice-Chairs. The criticism has been made by others, and it is well taken, that although there are provisions in the Bylaws for assuring proportionate minority representation on the Executive Board (again, elected solely by the Minority Caucus), there is no similar requirement for membership supplementation to assure gender equity. The saliency of this point is underscored by the fact that, except for First Vice Chair Worley, all the Vice Chairs elected at the August 14 meeting were male.
One passing note about the elections of the Vice Chairs is in order. One white SDEC member was complaining to me after the August 14 meeting about being excluded, along with others, from the Minority Caucus meeting at which Dr. Reed was selected as Vice Chair, and other seats were filled to bring the SDEC into compliance with the Bylaws. If the Caucus did close its meeting, and I was not there to observe this happen, it violated the applicable rules of the Democratic National Committee. Minority members of the SDEC, in their individual capacities, are free to meet whenever they wish, discuss whatever they need to, and exclude whomever they want. However, when they are sitting as the Caucus, and exercising their official prerogative to select Party officers, they must conform to the requirement that, “All meetings of the Democratic National Committee, the Executive Committee, and all other official Party committees, commissions and bodies shall be open to the public, and votes shall not be taken by secret ballot.” Charter of the Democratic National Committee, Art. IX § 12 (2010)(emphasis added). The elections of Dr. Reed and others could be subject to legal challenge if they are undertaken at a closed meeting, and I want us to avoid the mischief that could cause.
Now, no one knows better than I that the operation of the SDEC is one of factions, opposing (and malleable) alliances, and contentious decision-making. Frankly, I am glad it is. That is little-d democracy in action. We Democrats have a big enough tent to allow for this. Let the Republican meetings look like the first round of the shuffleboard tournament at the Obese White Peoples’ Retirement Village. I know that the resistance to this Bylaws amendment has its roots in particular personalities, faction, and underlying controversies. On most of those controversies (including this year’s gubernatorial primary), I have sided with those personalities and factions that are pushing back against this amendment.
Perhaps that gives me some room to speak to those personalities and factions not as opponents, but as a friend, and in any case as a fellow Democrat. I ask them to drop their opposition to this amendment, and to allow it to pass. Those who have been opposing this amendment are strongly, if not overwhelmingly, represented on the current Executive Board. The addition of one additional member to that Board, which already has 25+ members, is not going to result in any change in the likely outcomes of Board proceedings. What is more, there are those who are not as well-disposed to the amendment’s opponents as am I. Some of those persons, who claim to be good Democrats, are using the opponents’ position on the amendment to attack the opponents. Those individuals have often spoken ill of the amendment’s opponents, and of the need to push them out of Party leadership altogether. Such talk is rubbish, but, I ask the amendment’s opponents, why hand them ammunition? This amendment is a long overdue recognition of irreplaceable work done by a key constituency of the Party.
If no better argument can be made for amending the Bylaws to give the AFDW this recognition, it is this: despite the rather impertinent treatment with which their request for a seat at the table was treated, the women of the AFDW have not gone to the house and sulked. Everywhere I turn this year, I see their leaders, and their members, busily working to elect Democrats at every level. While this speaks volumes about their character, it would be unwise for those who have taken them for granted to think that we can continue to treat them thus forever, without serious consequences.
Even before Governor Chapman signed that Act in 1848, the Alabama Legislature had passed numerous “private acts” - a common method of obtaining relief in those days - to protect the property of individual women from automatic ownership by abusive, intemperate, or spendthrift husbands. The Suffragist movement was as active in Alabama as anywhere, led by the efforts of such leaders as Birmingham’s Pattie Ruffner Jacobs (shown here). Even hapless Richard Shelby, as a Democratic State Senator before his elevation to Congress and his defection to the Republicans, led the fight in the Alabama Senate for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It’s embarrassing for the party of gender equity not to continue this proud tradition, and recognize the work of the AFDW. Pass the damn thing. Please, so we can get back to beating Republicans together.