When Complaining About a "Nanny State" is Sexist

| Fri May 27, 2011 12:42 PM EDT

In recent years, the term "nanny state" has become a favorite putdown on the Right. Conservatives routinely trot it out to defend their freedom to eat trans fats, inhale tobacco, or blaze incandescent light bulbs. Even the administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger fell prey to the label in more ways than one. But can the meme last? Dissing big government is one thing, but why bring nannies into it? Somebody's bound to get spanked. And that's pretty much what happened on the floor of the Texas House yesterday when a Democratic state Representative discovered that one of her bills was being opposed by a flyer depicting a baby nursing a bare breast beneath the words: "Don't expand the nanny state."

"I don't appreciate this attack on women," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston as she held a copy of the flier, which was made by members of the conservative Texas Civil Justice League, a tort reform group. "And I'm going to have to tell you something: I don't perpetrate violence against somebody, but if they were here I would probably bloody their nose."

A bipartisan collection of female lawmakers backed Thompson up at the podium. Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle questioned a misogynist climate created by "the way some of the men have treated some of the women--with pornography on the floor of this House."

The flyer's offensiveness seems to come less from the intimate photo it shows than the way it frames it: Portraying the breast as belonging to a nanny flatters neither mothers nor nannies (wet nursing stopped being popular decades ago). Add the negative political message, and the flyer comes off as a mockery of the bond between mother and child.

Female legislators were clearly exasperated. Houston Democrat Carol Alvarado alluded to the House's recent passage of a bill that requires women to view a sonogram of their unborn fetus before getting an abortion. "We have had almost 50-plus bills or amendments this session that I think have demeaned women," she said, "but this one takes us to an all-time low."

In an apology email, the president of the Texas Civil Justice League said the flyer was only a "draft" that had been given to somebody outside the group and then reproduced. But as of Thursday evening, that explanation seemed to have done little to quell a brewing gender war in the Texas legislature. The most forceful part of Thompson's speech, which received a standing ovation, starts around 4:45:

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