Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
It’s June 24, 2013, and someone asks you about Wendy Davis. If you’re like most Americans, you’d probably respond by saying, “Who?”
On June 25, that changed for hundreds of thousands of people around the country. Davis, a Texas state senator, became a household name within a day for sustaining an 11-hour filibuster against a bill that would make abortions in the second trimester illegal, require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as hospital-style surgical centers, and demand that doctors performing the procedure have a license to practice in nearby hospitals.
“Members,” she told the chamber, “I’m rising on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans who have been ignored.”
The new rules collected in SB5 would have shut down all but five of the state’s abortion clinics.
But they didn’t, at least not for now. Hundreds of protesters gathered to cheer Sen. Davis as she spoke about abortion, spending much of her time reading letters from Texans who opposed the bill. The stories drew an emotional response from Davis at times, causing her to choke up and dry her eyes and nose with a tissue.
“I’d say that if you vote for this bill, you’re simply happy to ignore medical science and watch women and children die for no reason,” one of the women wrote.
Unlike filibusters that take place in the legislative chambers in Washington, D.C., in which senators can talk about anything that comes to mind, Davis was required to stay on the topic of abortion throughout the entire 11-hour period. She was forbidden to eat or drink, leave for the bathroom or even lean on the desk in front of her.
As Davis’ speech neared its 11th hour, Republican senators attempted to interrupt it by claiming she had strayed off topic. Davis calmly and with dignity explained how everything she was saying was relevant. The Republicans’ efforts were shouted down by her supporters for roughly 15 minutes, during which they chanted “Let her speak! Let her speak!” and were objected to by her Democratic colleagues. Some observers took to their social media accounts to make sure their friends online did not miss the fact that a demonstration of the classic feminist struggle for the right to participate in politics was occurring right before the nation’s eyes.
“It is the year 2013 and we’re watching a group of men decide if a woman has the right to speak or not,” one teenage girl wrote on Facebook.
The cheers overwhelmed any attempts to proceed, and in a thuggish display, Republican lawmakers later attempted to claim that they had passed the bill anyway. The Associated Press reported they had passed the bill. But at around 3 a.m., Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst conceded that the vote had not followed legislative procedures and was thus dead. He blamed an “unruly mob” using what he derided as “Occupy Wall Street tactics.”
Women’s advocates around the country celebrated the victory. Although pride in Davis’ performance has lasted, the bill’s status as extinct has not. Later in the day, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers to gather for another special session beginning July 1, when SB5 would be up for passage again.
Two days after the event, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, told “Democracy Now!” about a poll showing that only a third of Texans trust the state legislature and the governor “when it comes to women and women’s health.” She confirmed that if passed, the measure would reduce the number of abortion clinics in the state to five from the 40 facilities that now exist.
“[I]f you look at the map, it means women who live in West Texas, South Texas, will have to drive hundreds of miles to find a health care provider,” Richards said. “And that’s sort of the outrageous thing about this bill. It has nothing to do with women’s health. It has nothing to do with helping women. Literally—it has been stated, and Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst has been very clear—this is about shutting down women’s health centers.”
The struggle for women and reproductive health in Texas resumes Monday during another 30-day legislative session. ThinkProgress reports that “unless there’s some way to delay the final vote until the last day of the session, another filibuster may not work.” A lawmaker would conceivably have to filibuster for weeks to block the bill.
Protesters are gearing up for another fight, but as is clear throughout the United States, given its patchwork of laws that often do not serve the interests of the people, their power to shape their lawmakers’ behavior is limited.
Davis too may have to fight to retain her seat in the state Senate. A Democracy for America email sent June 29 warned that her Republicans colleagues were plotting to “kick her out of office” by redrawing state voting lines.
“Gov. Rick Perry just authorized a new, gerrymandered redistricting plan aimed at one thing: cementing Republican power by expelling Democrats from their seats,” the email said.
“It’s a play right out of Karl Rove’s book,” the alert added, “and if we don’t take action now, we can say goodbye to great leaders like Wendy.”
That would be bad for all Texas Democrats. But it might not keep Davis from public leadership. Media reports suggest she’s considering a run for the governor’s office. Thousands of people have signed a petition asking her to do so, and are already taking money for a campaign coffer. In an MSNBC appearance after the filibuster, Davis said she was open to the idea.
Given the Republican leadership’s determination to pass this anti-abortion bill, the near future looks bad for women and their supporters in Texas. But thanks to one state senator’s populist display, a passionate opposition seems to be stirring. For standing up for women and what’s right, we honor Sen. Wendy Davis as our Truthdigger of the Week.