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Legislature chamber

The Nebraska Legislature has 14 women among its 49 members.

A day after more than 1,000 people from across Nebraska took to the streets in the third annual Women's March, an exchange about women's "need to wake up" made its way to the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.

It started with Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers praising U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi for standing up to President Donald Trump over the State of the Union address.

As he talked, his speech moved into the need for women to wake to the fact that they are a majority of the population, and don't have to be whining or begging men for anything. 

A majority of the population, and yet there are 14 women compared with 35 men in the Legislature. That's 28.6 percent. And women make up slightly less than 24 percent of the United States Congress. 

Chambers then spoke about his history of standing up for women in his 44-year tenure in the Legislature and that he would continue to fight their mistreatment. 

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh then stood up to say a version of: Thank you very much, Sen. Chambers, but women are awake and can speak for and take care of themselves. 

The freshman senator said later it was hurtful and insulting to be told she needed to wake up, after she worked so hard to get to the Legislature. Women may not comprise half of the Legislature, but it is significant there are more serving this year than there's ever been, she said. 

"And I felt like it was being diminished," she said. 

Chambers came back to the microphone to say women should not look at whatever progress they have made with contentment or acceptance.

"I'm glad to see the few women that are here," he said. 

But he has been in the Legislature many years and has seen how women have been treated and mistreated, for example getting less of a pension payout than men, at one time, because they live longer, even though they had to pay in as much as men. And he has fought for women on those injustices, he said. 

Cavanaugh came back, saying she appreciated everything he had done in his legislative history. But she is here to legislate her own way, to find her way and make her own mistakes and learn her own lessons. 

"I just wanted to let you know, and everyone else in this chamber know, that women are awake. We know what's going on," she said. "You might not agree with our way of doing things, but we're here and we're doing them." 

Two years ago, thousands of women marched in Washington, letting people know their voices would be heard. Women don't all have the same approaches to problems, but they are fighting for themselves and others. And deserve respect for that. 

No man "should be telling us how to manage our business or how to think," she said. "I appreciate you being an advocate for everyone, but maybe just be a little bit more thoughtful when you're talking to women about women."

Chambers said he was not talking just to women in the Legislature, but the many women out beyond the Capitol's walls and halls, women who don't make the same salary as men in the workplace, or who don't hold majority positions. 

"Let them get angry at me," he said. "Anger when it's properly directed is a revolutionary sentiment. Women ought to be angry. They shouldn't be angry at me, but do I care if they are? Heavens, no." 

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said the debate was a "very important" one. 

"I remember when there were no women in this chamber," she said. "But I also have great admiration and appreciate very much that Sen. Cavanaugh was willing to stand up this morning and take issue with some of what Sen. Chambers said." 

But until women feel like they can stick up for themselves and stand their ground without somebody holding their hands, she said, "we're not completely seen as equal." 

Chambers said later that women need strong voices to speak on their issues.

"The women here are not going to do it. They haven't done it. And my point is they shouldn't have to do it. All of us are to work together, not just reach out and grab issues (and) don't ask anybody or try to get support. It's wrong and it needs to be corrected, and that's what I do," he said. 

Things have not changed, he said. 

"And the fact that Cavanaugh got elected doesn't mean that now everything is all right and a new day has dawned, and issues that I raise shouldn't be raised anymore."

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, who like Chambers is African-American, took the opportunity to say senators cannot just look at the present, but must look at the historical context in which they find themselves in the Legislature, whether through a female lens or that of a black or brown person. 

"If we don't understand the historical context of how we got here, and how many of us are still left behind, we are failing," he said. 

He said he was asked by a man on an elevator at a Nebraska Cattlemen's dinner last week if he was serving or cooking at the event. 

Not too many people in the Legislature are looked at as the help — and nothing more — at the dinners and lunches they go to, he said. 

"They don't see me as a state senator. They see me as a stereotypical black or brown individual who is working," he said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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