State Board of Education member Herb Rozell on Thursday said a pregnant woman hired as the legislative liaison for the Education Department would be “worthless” to them if she has her baby in May.
The comment was made during newly elected state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi's first meeting. She attempted to have five members of her transition team approved by the board, but she was met with opposition, and the employees were quizzed about their qualifications.
Immediately after the meeting, Rozell's comment was condemned by Gov. Mary Fallin, Barresi and a number of lawmakers.
“As a pregnant woman myself who ran for the state Legislature in 1990 and had a baby between sessions, I can say women can be pregnant and get the job done,” Fallin said during a news conference at the state Capitol. “Shame on them for making fun of a pregnant woman. It's really disgusting to hear those kinds of comments being made.”
State Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, and Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, called for Rozell to publicly apologize and resign from the post he was appointed to last year by former Gov. Brad Henry.
“I thought it was archaic, misogynistic and deplorable,” Jolley said.
When the board began to consider hiring Jessica Russell as the department's legislative liaison, Barresi asked if Russell could remain seated because she was nervous and also pregnant.
The board agreed, and board member Tim Gilpin asked several questions about Russell's qualifications for the job.
Board members voted unanimously to approve Russell, but then Rozell asked when her baby was due.
“If she has that child in April and takes off six weeks, she's worthless to us,” Rozell said. “She won't be able to keep up.”
“Sir, that is highly, highly inappropriate,” Barresi scolded him. “Your comment is inappropriate, and it is not worthy of this board or this department. Sir, I would ask you to withdraw your statement. Can we please take a 10-minute recess, please?”
Board member Tim Gilpin then asked, “Can we have a motion that she not have her baby in April or May?”
Gilpin then told Barresi she had “fairly thin skin” if she was offended by the comments.
“I was clear that his statement was joking,” Gilpin said.
Russell left the board meeting in tears and said she was embarrassed by the comments.
“As a young professional woman, I was just in shock that that would even be said,” Russell said in an interview after the meeting. “I just couldn't believe that something like that would be said in this day and age.”
Despite the comments, Russell said she is looking forward to beginning her work for the Education Department.
Rozell, a former state senator, and Gilpin, an attorney from Tulsa, said after the meeting that the comments were said in a joking manner.
“There is nothing that was said that was inappropriate,” Rozell said.