JEFFERSON CITY — Female Missouri House Democrats are contending that they have been treated differently than male colleagues.
Several Democratic members said in interviews that some behavior such as engaging in pointed debate is acceptable for men but has been deemed inappropriate for women. They also suggested that women haven't been treated the same as men and that their legislation isn't handled the same way.
The issue came to a head publicly late Monday night when more than a dozen Democratic women met with Republican House Speaker Ron Richard in one of the chamber's public side galleries while debate continued nearby.
Although the discussion could be seen throughout the chamber, it was impossible to hear what was being said.
Several lawmakers who were part of the meeting said the main issue involved noncontroversial bills sponsored by Reps. Beth Low and Rachel Bringer that were not put on the House calendar to be debated.
Low, D-Kansas City, said on Tuesday that she believes female lawmakers have been treated differently than men. But Low called it the "trickiest sort of different treatment" because it is not an overt effort to discriminate.
"The same words spoken by myself and Rachel Bringer elicit a different response than when they are spoken by male members of our (Democratic) caucus," Low said.
Richard, R-Joplin, said in an interview that bills filed by Bringer and Low were accidentally left off the calendar of bills that can be debated because of errors in his office and the clerk's office.
Richard said he treats members equally and called the accusations that the chamber's women are discriminated against "the silliest thing I have ever heard."
"I told the ladies I never pay attention to a person's sex," Richard said. "If you're a good legislator (with) good legislation, I'm happy to help. But if it's bad, and I don't like it, I don't care if you're a man or a woman, I'm not going to help on stuff I disagree with."
Low's and Bringer's bills are designed to spur downtown revitalization in Missouri's smaller cities, to allow teachers to use the same background check for a full year and to require that sexual assault victims be told that they can request a test to determine if a drug had been used.
Richard said he told Bringer that her redevelopment bill would be placed on the debate calendar.
Bringer, D-Palmyra, said she hoped her legislation wasn't blocked so that she would be less aggressive in asking questions, and that she appreciated Richard's willingness to listen to her caucus' concerns.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to work through these issues with the women's caucus," Bringer said.
It's not unusual for groups of lawmakers to gather on the House floor, along the back wall of the chamber or in public side galleries, but it is uncommon for meetings to be so large and in public and while the House is in session. Democrats said they met en masse with Richard to show support for Low and Bringer.
Adding to the tension is an April 15 deadline for noncontroversial House bills to be cleared by Senate committees for debate in the full chamber. The tight time frame decreases the chances that additional House consent bills will pass.