“Something Special is Happening in Austin.”
Wendy Davis' pink shoes, worn to help her stand through a 13 hour fillibuster, have already become emblematic of this historic standoff.
Over the past two days, the American political media have been focused on two Supreme Court decisions that seem to go in opposite directions: the rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act, which affirmed the rights of gay spouses under the US Constitution and the strike-down of the Voting Rights Act, which dispensed with preclearance requirements for the polling practices of a subset of Southern states with a nasty racial history. A significant segment of the American public, however, was breathlessly watching a different drama in the Texas state legislature.
Like many other young American women, my daughter, Caitlin, stayed up til the wee hours Tuesday night watching Wendy Davis attempt a 13 hour filibuster against a bill that would have closed nearly all the abortion clinics in Texas, the second largest state in the nation. “It was a sight to see,” she wrote to me the next morning, “The country was on the edge of their seats rooting for her. Twitter was on fire. It was just a really memorable moment: this underdog woman up against the most stringent abortion legislation ever proposed in the most conservative state in the country. Is there a girl version of David and Goliath?”
Caitlin watched from New York. Viewers from states all over the US watched by viewing a livestream from The Texas Tribune and checking for uploads on youtube. Simultaneous livestreaming reached 182,000. Meanwhile, no established network carried it, leading to criticism since. But the real crowd was in the Texas state house. After Obama’s office tweeted “There’s something special happening in Austin tonight,” using the hashtag “StandWithWendy,” thousands of citizens went down to the Capitol. Meanwhile, the hashtag went to the top of the worldwide Twitter charts.
The filibuster is a form of legislative procedure unfamiliar to many outside the United States. Also known as “talking out a bill,” fillibuster is an extended speech by which a legislator attempts to stall out the debate on a bill until the parliamentary session has ended and a vote can no longer be valid. To beat this bill, Davis needed to talk nonstop for 13 hours. The Texas filibuster rules are stricter than other jurisdictions’, however, requiring that the speaker remain on her feet, refrain from leaning on anything, forgo meal or bathroom breaks, and stay on topic for the duration of the speech.
Wendy Davis speaking in the Texas legislature on Tuesday night. You can see some of her supporters in the gallery above, but many more were outside in the main rotunda.
The spectacle of this slender blonde woman, who looks much younger than her 50 years, was heightened substantially by her own narrative. Wendy Davis was the daughter of a single mother. Herself a mother at 19, she lived in a trailer park, eking out subsistence as a single mom. But she finished her education, trained as a paralegal, and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School. The very fact that her story is so unlikely was a case in point dramatizing the relationship between reproductive rights and economic equality for women.
Crowd in the Texas Capitol Tuesday night.
At 11 hours and 45 minutes, Davis was interrupted with the charge that her current line of argument, which addressed mandatory sonograms, was “off topic.” But the attempt to stop the filibuster with this dubious objection caused the observation gallery, packed with Davis’ supporters, to raise a ruckus so loud that the legislature was unable to proceed with a vote. The delay was enough to push past the deadline for passage and the bill failed.
Today, the American media–when they take a break from ranting over DOMA or the Voting Rights Act–are saying, “oh well, it wasn’t important because the bill will just pass in another special session.” And, indeed, the Texas governor has already called the session and, certainly, the bill will pass this time around because the conservatives control the legislature and the timing will not allow another fillibuster.
Some, however, are arguing that the Davis event is significant for other reasons. To be sure, it is yet another illustration of the power of social media to rouse the public. And, certainly, this event has turned Wendy Davis into a star, possibly leading to a run for the governorship. But there is something harder to define that makes this moment particularly inspirational.
Cecile Richards, national president of Planned Parenthood, is the daughter of iconic and progressive former Texas governor, Anne Richards.
Caitlin wrote, “She made me proud of Texas!” When I repeated that to my husband Jim (who is from Chicago), he rolled his eyes. That’s because Texas has been the poster state for outrageous redneck politics these past 10+ years (well, ok, maybe 20+). But people have forgotten what some Texas natives (like myself) still remember: there is a particular strain of progressive politics that is as native to Texas as the armadillos–and many of the most important exemplars have been female. It was simply brilliant to see a new representative of that lineage take to her feet in Austin and be cheered so loudly by the crowds in the capitol building.
Sarah Weddington in 1973. She went on to serve three terms as a Texas state legislator after winning Roe versus Wade in the U. S. Supreme Court.
The case that established abortion rights, Roe versus Wade, came out of Texas and was argued before the Supreme Court by another blonde, female, liberal Texas Democrat, Sarah Weddington, who was 26 years old at the time! This week, much is being made about Cecile Richards‘ presence in the state house on Tuesday: she is the national president of Planned Parenthood, but she is also the daughter of Anne Richards, former governor and another in the pantheon of strong Texas women with progressive politics. (A typical characteristic of such women is their wry and sassy humor. Anne Richards was especially funny. Among other things, she was famously known for observing that George H. W. Bush was born “with a silver foot in this mouth.”) There were many others, like Sissy Farenthold and Barbara Jordan, who inspired me in my youth–back in the days when Republicans in Texas were rare and Democrats practiced populism. So, yeah, I am proud to be a Texan this week, in that provisional way that Texans learn to be proud. It feels great.
Amanda Marcotte at Slate made a nice demographic argument to say that the conservatives will not be able to hold Texas much longer. It may be one of the most conservative states in the nation, but it is also one of the most diverse (and, yes ma’am, one of the biggest) and one of only five where whites are a minority already. That diversity is growing so fast that you can already see the change coming in the metropolitan areas and along the border with Mexico (Texas, actually, is heavily Hispanic, a group that the GOP is losing nationally). Marcotte also reminds us of the lesson that is near my heart today: “Liberal women in Texas have been fighting this fight for a very long time, and they know how to do it.”