March 24, 2009

How I learned a new word

Lorraine Collins is a writer from Spearfish

Except for working crossword puzzles, I don’t come across exotic and arcane words much any more and I can usually figure out what a word new to me means. A teacher once scolded me for looking up words in the dictionary all the time, and said I should figure them out by finding their roots and thinking of similar words. This often works, but a couple of weeks ago I had to look up a word in the dictionary.

This was a word I encountered in House Bill 1138 in the current legislative session. The Bill passed both houses of the Legislature and was sent to the governor for his signature. It was “An Act to provide for the defeasance of the Commission on the Status of Women.” Defeasance? Anybody ever heard of defeasance?

I’ve heard of malfeasance, this being what happens when elected or appointed officials embezzle or misspend public funds, but I’d never heard of defeasance. I couldn’t quite figure out what it meant, so I looked it up. What it means is eliminating or terminating an entity.

So this House Bill 1138 was eliminating the South Dakota Commission on the Status of Women as being a governmental entity. That’s understandable. The CSW has not been funded for 28 years. It effectively ceased to exist when Governor Janklow appointed three extremely conservative women to the commission who had campaigned to eliminate the very body they’d been appointed to. No funds were appropriated. The Commission on the Status of Women has been defunct for about a generation.

Still, as one who once headed the Commission, I’m sorry to see that it has been erased from the state of South Dakota. The Commission on the Status of Women was created in 1973 as a statutory body with obligations to report to the Legislature. The 12-member Commission could not have more than seven members of any party. Since Governor Kneip was a Democrat, the Commission had seven Democrats of course. I became one of five Republican members. Due to circumstances too complicated to explain here, the governor eventually appointed me Chairperson of the Commission despite my political affiliation.

When an editorial in a newspaper subsequently objected to the new gender-neutral language and complained about the term “chairperson”, it said that I couldn’t possibly be such a thing. I said yes I could and I had a certificate signed by the governor to prove it.

An article by Dr. Ruth Alexander published twenty years ago in South Dakota History magazine gives us an idea of what the Commission was up to in the 1970’s.

She wrote, “We became a clearing house for problems affecting women’s lives that demanded action---day care for children, sex role stereotyping in the public schools, job discrimination, difficulties in getting credit, teenage mothers, rape, battered women, displaced homemakers, inheritance laws, nontraditional students.”

We held meetings at various locations around the state, published a newsletter and created educational materials of various kinds. I used to fly from Rapid City to Pierre to testify before legislative committees about problems women faced. There was a lot of work to do in those days and I received calls from women all across the state asking for help because they didn’t know where else to turn. Remembering that heady time, I was sad to learn of the defeasance of the Commission on the Status of Women but I suppose it’s best not to pretend such an entity exists in South Dakota when it doesn’t.

Most of the problems we dealt with thirty years ago remain, and some have gotten worse. So I was pleased to learn that President Obama has instituted a White House Council on Women and Girls. If we can’t look to Pierre to take women’s concerns seriously, at least we can look to Washington.

Lorraine Collins can be contacted at

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