In early March, the Republican controlled West Virginia House of Delegates, by a vote of 58-41, passed a bill designed to axe the long standing West Virginia Women's Commission. Coincidentally March is designated as Women's History Month in the United States.
The bill was sponsored by Delegate Kayla Kessinger, a Republican whose district includes portions of Fayette, Clay, Nicholas and Raleigh Counties. Republican Delegates Nancy Foster, Saira Blair, Terri Sypolt, Amy Summers, Ruth Rowan, Carol Miller and Lynne Arvon all co-sponsored the bill.
No Democrat supported the measure and four Republicans opposed the move, Delegates Shelley Moore Capito, Bill Hamilton, William Romine and Danny Wagner.
Established in 1977, the West Virginia Women's Commission (WVWC) "promotes the status and empowerment of all West Virginia women through advocacy, research, education and consensus building. The Commission exists to foster women's economic, educational, and social development; to ensure their full participation in society; and to recognize their achievements" according to their website. Their 2017 budget allocation was approximately $156,000.
Kessinger argued favorably for her bill, suggesting the WVWC is offensive and superfluous. A larger narrative of eliminating unnecessary government expenditures was added to the reasoning to discontinue the WVWC.
Democratic Delegate John Williams, however, argued during debate "you would need to repeat that cut 2,999 times to get the $450 million shortfall."
The United States granted women the right to vote nearly 100 years ago. The Democratic Party nominated a woman for president in 2016 and more women are serving in the United States Congress than at any other time in history. With these landmarks, however modest they may be, in place, is it still necessary for states to invest taxpayer funds to promote gender equality? Many citizens of West Virginia believe the answer is a resounding yes.
Belinda Biafore, the chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, issued a fiery statement before the bill even passed.
"It is absolutely disgraceful to see a group of women legislators seeking to terminate an organization that represents and benefits women in West Virginia," she wrote. Biafore, a former member of the Commission, went on to note one of the bill's co-sponsors attended a training program offered by the group for political candidates.
Sammi Brown, a native West Virginian who challenged Republican Delegate Jill Upson as the Democratic nominee in the 65th Delegate District, called the move "unfathomable."
"The vote in and of itself is proof that we have 'representation' that not only votes against our interests, they vote against their own," she said. "The WVWC is in place to support formidable individuals and diversify our representation."
Brown argues women are woefully underrepresented in West Virginia politics and the data backs up her assertion.
In 2017, only 15 women (13 Republicans and two Democrats) sit in the West Virginia House, the lowest number since 1984. Those women make up only 15 percent of the total membership of the West Virginia House. The West Virginia Senate, while seeing an increase in female members since the last election, only has three women out of 34 total members.
Since statehood, West Virginia has only sent one woman to the United States Senate, incumbent Republican Shelley Moore Capito, and two women to the United States House, Democrat Elizabeth Kee and Capito. Kee won a special election in 1951 to finish out her deceased husband's term. Capito's father, former Governor Arch Moore, also served in the U.S. House, but completed his service many years before Capito sought a seat.
Further, West Virginia has never elected a female governor and with Natalie Tennant's defeat as Secretary of State, only Capito and Supreme Court Justices Robin Jean Davis, Margaret Workman and Beth Walker served as female statewide elected officials.
The West Virginia Senate is set to take up a bill also eliminating the WVWC before the end of the legislative session in April.