[Paleopsych] NYT: Old Law Shielding a Woman's Virtue Faces an Updating

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Old Law Shielding a Woman's Virtue Faces an Updating
January 26, 2005


    SEATTLE, Jan. 25 - It is about time, politicians here are saying, for
    the state of Washington to catch up with the rest of the world.

    Florida has struck down a law forbidding unmarried women from
    parachuting on Sundays. Michigan has done away with a law making it
    illegal to swear in front of women and children. Texas women no longer
    face 12 months in prison for adjusting their stockings in public. And
    the ladies of Maine can now legally tickle a man under the chin with a
    feather duster.

    But here in Washington, in 2005, it is still illegal, under a 1909
    law, to bring a woman's virtue into question publicly, to call her a
    hussy or a strumpet.

    And now, a state senator from Seattle - who is not saying she supports
    attacking the chastity of Washington women - is, nevertheless, trying
    to overturn the state's "Slander of a Woman" law.

    The law was enacted here at a time when women could not vote, when
    they were viewed by society as delicate flowers to be kept in the
    kitchen, tending to wood-burning stoves for their genteel gentlemen,
    vulnerable maidens in need of legal protection from verbal assaults on
    their purity. It was upheld by the State Supreme Court in 1914, which
    researchers say was apparently the last time it was before the courts.

    Now, Senate Bill 5148, introduced this month by Senator Jeanne
    Kohl-Welles, a Democrat, would repeal the law, which makes it a
    misdemeanor to slander any female older than 12 - other than
    prostitutes - by uttering "any false or defamatory words or language
    which shall injure or impair the reputation of any such female for
    virtue or chastity or which shall expose her to hatred, contempt or

    If the bill becomes law, women will have the same protection as men
    under the other slander laws, which will remain in effect.

    Ms. Kohl-Welles - who lectures on women's studies at the University of
    Washington and admits there are more pressing priorities facing a
    state with a $1.8 billion deficit - said the old law was nonetheless a
    vestige of sexism, a "double standard" and an unconstitutional affront
    to free speech.

    "Even though one type of treatment can appear on the surface to be
    positive and complimentary, it's also being protective and
    patronizing," said Ms. Kohl-Welles, who has researched other
    old-fashioned laws and found that many states have done away with

    But Washington women are not the only ones who have such legal
    protections against dastardly assaults on their integrity. Eight other
    states, including New York, still have similar laws on their books,
    according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, even if
    they have been rarely used since the days of horse drawn carriages.

    Michigan is one of those states. But in 2002 an appeals court there
    did strike down a separate 105-year-old law that made it illegal to
    swear in front of women and children, after a man dubbed by local
    media the "cussing canoeist," was punished with a $75 fine and ordered
    to perform four days of community service. His offense was uttering
    profanities in front of women and children in 1999, after he fell out
    of his canoe.

    Here in Washington, where Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided
    over a contested governor's election, the bill to repeal the law
    against slandering a woman seems to have unusual support from both
    sides of the aisle, from both Venus and Mars, with three Democrats and
    one Republican, two men and two women, sponsoring the bill.

    Ms. Kohl-Welles introduced the bill two years ago, but it died a fast
    death in the Republican-controlled Senate. This year, Democrats
    control both houses of the Legislature, and the head of the Senate
    Judiciary Committee, Adam Kline, is a Democrat and a cosponsor of the
    bill, leading to optimism that impugning a woman's virtue could become
    legal here.

    Mr. Kline said his interest in the bill was less about women's rights
    and more about purging the law books of anachronisms.

    "This was a simply an attempt to get rid of an anomaly, something that
    was enacted in 1909," he said. "It's archaic. It has no business being
    in the law in the year 2005." While most of the nation's laws
    prohibiting impugning a woman's chastity have not been used for
    decades - or longer - New York's law was cited in a lawsuit filed in
    1996 by a Harlem teacher against Joe Klein, author of the 1995 novel
    "Primary Colors," and his publisher, Random House. The teacher said
    she was the basis for a character that had a sexual relationship with
    a fictional Southern governor. She claimed a violation of New York
    State Civil Rights Law, Article 7, Section 77, relating to "action of
    slander of a woman imputing unchastity to her." The case was dismissed
    in 2003.

    With all of Washington's political and financial troubles, Ms.
    Kohl-Welles's effort to strike down the 1909 law has drawn some

    "The last record of an appeal related to the crime was nine decades
    ago," said an editorial in the Seattle Times last Saturday, "which
    makes you wonder what is Senate Bill 5148's urgency, given the
    daunting challenges facing the Legislature."

    Ms. Kohl-Welles acknowledged that as the Legislature, torn apart by
    the tumultuous governor's race here, is tackling so many other things,
    the bill is not a high priority. Republicans have filed a lawsuit
    contesting the election won by only 129 votes of Christine O.
    Gregoire, the Democrat, who was sworn in this month.

    "On first blush, this could sound silly," she said. "I'm not fearful
    that women or men are going to be arrested and this has to be a big
    case for violations of this law. But let's just get rid of it."

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