Woman dressed in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ outfit walks Capitol

‘This is a demonstration of power and strength’

By: - April 29, 2021 7:39 pm

Chelsia Rice walked around the Montana Capitol on Thursday, possibly the last day of the 2021 session, to give women a voice. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

When legislators tried to create a panel to review abortions paid for by Medicaid, Chelsia Rice decided she would put on “The Handmaid’s Tale” outfit she owns and head for the Capitol.

The Helena resident of 13 years has testified to the legislature before, but this time, she felt compelled to create a piece of performance art in response to bills the Legislature considered and adopted this session.

“I think handmaids are badass,” Rice said, following lap No. 7 of her demonstration. “So for me, this is a demonstration of power and strength, of women who can persevere.”

She had donned the floor length red robe and long white hat from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where fertile women are forced to produce babies in a patriarchal society. The oppressed women also mount a resistance. The author based the 1985 fiction of their subjugation on real events and social mores, and the book was turned into a television series in 2017.

Rice acquired the costume five years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president. Thursday, she said she walked thinking of people she believes the 2021 Legislature had oppressed, women, LGBTQ+ people, trans people, and others.

In a phone call, Jan Strout, president of Montana NOW, National Organization for Women, agreed women’s issues had fared poorly this session. She said she wished she was also wearing a crimson robe and walking alongside Rice.

“It is totally appropriate,” Strout said.

She said the Legislature approved bills that harm women in the guise of protecting them (she said she was using air quotes around the word “protect”). At the same time, she said lawmakers failed to pass bills that would have helped women, such as ones that offer more economic security for families.

“You wouldn’t even know there was a pandemic this session other than removing more rights from people,” Strout said.

The issue that catalyzed Rice’s solo march was the proposal from Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, to start an abortion review committee to ensure the procedures paid for by Medicaid were appropriate, or limited to those as a result of rape, incest or ones a doctor deemed medically necessary.

The measure ultimately failed, and lawmakers instead opted to approve a study on the “history, utilization data, policies, rules, and definitions for Medicaid paid abortions.”

This session, legislators approved and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed three bills that restrict abortion. Lawmakers also approved a bill that bans trans women college athletes from playing on women’s sports teams.

Women make up just 28 percent of the 2021 Montana Legislature, according to a legislative tally. The same record shows the largest percent they have accounted for was 31.3 percent in 2015.

Thursday, which looked like the last day of the 2021 Montana Legislature, Rice walked laps around the building from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. She’d told some people her plans, but the business owner walked by herself.

“I’m happy to be here alone,” she said.

She didn’t have a goal in mind for the number of laps she’d complete, but she said it wasn’t easy to walk the grounds with a mask in place. She figured she’d walk until she needed to stop.

“Until I have to pee,” Rice said.

Later in the afternoon, she estimated she’d done 10 laps in all. She said she hoped the legislature was nearing its close as well.

“I hope they sine die soon,” Rice said, just hours before the Legislature adjourned Thursday. “I’m tired.

“Not just of walking, of course.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.