In 2013, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis delivered an electrifying 13-hour filibuster against SB 5, the disastrous omnibus abortion bill that was eventually enacted and is now better known as HB 2. The bill has, as Davis warned, become a public health disaster for Texas women, and, in reaching the Supreme Court, has the potential to shape the future of abortion access in the United States, or the lack thereof.
The image of Davis—grave and dignified in a pair of pink sneakers, occasionally wiping away tears as she read hours of personal testimony from women across the state—is engraved in the public memory. She became an instant hero. In the weeks that followed, the rest of America learned what Texas had long known: that Davis was a certified badass, a young single mom who worked her way out of poverty and into Harvard Law, elected office, and history.
After the filibuster, Davis’ next chapter was rockier: she launched a bid for governor but lost badly. In the process, local columnists, particularly Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News, raised nasty questions about her parenting and her life story, accusing her of lying about her rise (because, for example, paperwork Slater found indicates she finalized her divorce at 21, not 19). Right-wing graffiti artist Sabo made posters dubbing Davis “Abortion Barbie.” And when the dust was settled and the election was over, Davis was no longer in office, and the Texas Legislature had lost an important voice for progressive causes.
But sitting on the sidelines isn’t exactly Davis’ style, and while out of the limelight, she’s been busy putting together Deeds Not Words, a new platform for young female activists and change-makers. The full website will launch May 18. In the meantime, Davis spoke to Jezebel last week about public service, defeat, gender equality, and the tools she’s learned to make powerful, practical change. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: You ran for governor against Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and lost. I imagine that must have been crushing. The Texas Observer said you seemed “almost physically anguished” by by being out of public service. Can you describe what the weeks after the election were like for you and your family?
Wendy Davis: I had to find my bearings afterward. I’ve talked about the fact that losing that race was hard, but harder for me was when the session started in 2015 and I was no longer on the Senate floor. I spent some time trying to figure out, “How do I define myself now?” For 15 years, I had defined myself as a public servant. I started looking around and thinking about how I could continue to work on things that mattered to me. I knew I wanted to stay in the gender equality lane and try to have an impact there. So I started this discovery process over the course of quite a few months, looking at the landscape of who’s doing what and how I could add value to that and not be duplicating or competing with what’s being done.
I discovered while I was in that process that there were a number of organizations out there doing amazing work in a variety of ways that contribute to gender equality. I hadn’t heard of many of them before, and I knew if I hadn’t, many people probably hadn’t.
At the same time, I was traveling and speaking quite a lot. I was struck by the fact that I still had a wonderful audience of young women who continued to talk to me about feeling inspired and wanting to get involved. I was asked, repeatedly, “What do we do? What can we do?”
That was their frustration: they’re passionate, engaged, thoughtful people, but they don’t really know how to step in and act in a way that can be helpful.
As I started thinking about those pieces—these organizations, these young women who wanted very much to be a part of doing something important—I knew that was a good marriage. I had an opportunity through a pretty large social media footprint to introduce these organizations to a lot of young women who might not know about the work they’re doing and provide them with an idea about how they could get involved.
And now you’ve launched Deeds Not Words, “a starting point for young women to turn ideas about women’s equality into action by providing the tools needed to make changes in their local communities.” What’s it going to look like?
Three pieces. First, the digital hub: in part it will connect young women to existing orgs, what they’re doing and how they can get involved. It’ll have an event calendar that will highlight different things that are going on around the country.
Then the newsletter piece, which is the second of the three legs, will curate content from around the country that we think would be interesting, illuminating and inspiring to young women. In that, we’ll be highlighting change-makers, people who are stepping up in some way and doing something to make a difference, even if it might not seem like the biggest thing. It’s really important for us to see examples of people who step forward and do something that adds to the collective good. That really is what creates change over time.
The third piece is a more tactical piece. We have a goal in the first year of creating 10 different campus charters. And through those charters, we’ll be working with student leaders there to identify a project of importance to them, and then to provide them with the tools to see that project forward.
It seems like Deeds Not Words comes out of your interest in making direct, practical change. On a legislative level, making change sometimes involves compromise. But how do we move forward on issues like abortion where there is essentially no middle ground?
I think the middle ground is found when we put human faces and human stories on these issues. One of the worst things that happens in politics, and how we get dug in on either side of this issue, is we think of it in the abstract. When you poll people about abortion rights, a large majority of the U.S. population says they support women’s right to have a safe and legal abortion. When you ask about whether they support late-term or post-20 weeks, the support goes down. But if you share a story about why it is that a woman is confronted by the possibility of a post-20 week abortion, then you get a different answer. When people understand the experiences behind why women would make such a choice, it changes their thoughts.
That’s one of the things I wanted to do with this platform. One of the powerful things that came from the filibuster day is we shared so many stories. And i hope that Deeds Not Words, through the digital hub, will be a place for us to share stories and understand each other in a different way.
You rocketed to national fame as a result of your filibuster against SB 5. It was one of the most electrifying moments in political history I can remember. Deeds Not Words also draws on your experience with the #StandwithWendy hashtag, which brought viral attention to the SB 5 fight that night, when no media outlets were covering it.
It’s such a powerful opportunity to communicate and educate and engage people that otherwise never would happen. The day of the filibuster, as you said, national media was largely ignoring what was going on in Texas. It was people that made it news. People decided this was going to be a topic they wanted to talk about and focus on and get involved with.
It was really the ideal sense of how social media can be used as a tool, not only to let people know something that’s going on, but to then drive an engagement that otherwise wouldn’t be there. There’s simply no way that the thousands of people who showed up at the Capitol that day would’ve come had they not learned about what was happening through social media.
The guy who founded Twitter said a week or two after the filibuster that that’s exactly what it was founded to to do, that social media would lead to action. We’ve seen more recent examples of that—for example, the Black Lives Matter hashtag. It didn’t just stop with a hashtag or with a conversation that happened in a short period of time and then went away. It stimulated powerful, engaged action.
We also know the internet is full of basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing trolls. What are your tactics for dealing with online threats?
I don’t engage. When someone comes at me with hostility in a way that’s unfair and harassing, i just don’t engage. I ignore it. Because to engage with it is to empower it. I also have learned to maintain my mental health by not getting lost in the trail of Twitter comments and Facebook comments on my feed. Sometimes it’s more healthy to just make a statement, you want to make, hope people will share it and then—[laughs]— to leave the conversation until the next time you weigh in.
It can be really unhealthy to start going down that comments feed. During my gubernatorial campaign I couldn’t stop myself from doing that. I’d allow myself to go down these cycles of terrible harassing comments. I finally took social media off my phone, Twitter and Facebook both. I began to communicate on those platforms through the people that worked with me on the campaign. And it was the healthiest thing I could’ve done at the time.
For young women who are feeling the effects of trolling and harassment, think about what the desired effect is. The desired effect is that they will intimidate us into being silent, and that we’ll engage with them and they’ll pile on and pile on their hostile language.
So the way to disempower it is, number one, do not let it quiet you, and, number two, don’t engage with it. Ignore it. It’s not worth our time.
Watching you stand on the Senate floor while thousands of women screamed and made noise so that a vote simply couldn’t take place was a really powerful moment. The will of the people was pretty evident. But then lawmakers held a special session and passed that bill anyway. Representative democracy didn’t work. How do we not get cynical at a time like that?
I absolutely understand the appeal of feeling cynical in moments like that. But I can just say this: in the time since the filibuster, I’ve had so many younger women in Texas and in states all over the country who have shared with me about what that day meant to them and what it inspired them to them to do. I can’t tell you how many young women tell me, “I changed my college major,” or “I realized I was a feminist and I started calling myself a feminist,” or, “I started volunteering as an escort at a Planned Parenthood.” Just so many stories like this.
So what you realize, in that moment, you may have lost the battle. But I believe it contributes to our long-term ability to win the war. The people that showed up that day, whether they showed up by watching it online or in person, they became activists in a way they might not otherwise probably would not have been. That creates a positive ripple effect going forward and it leads to what will ultimately create change.
And it’s something I really try to encourage young women to think about. We’re not going to solve these problems overnight. We’re not always going to have these moments where one big thing happens and the attention of the world is is on us. It’s much more common that change will come in baby steps, bit by bit. But every tiny positive step we take is something that leads to the ultimate winning of our goals.
What do you feel like are some of the most important practical skills that you’ve learned for making political change?
One of the practical skills I learned is that the most effective change comes when we collectively join and make it happen. That day, I could’ve stood there and done exactly the same thing, but if no one had watched or hashtagged about it or showed up, it would’ve been a very different day. So it takes all of us together.
That’s why I’m so encouraged and feel like I’ve really learned to use the power of social media as a tool. It can’t be censored. It’s our right to have these conversations. It’s our right to educate and join together.
I learn so much by reading through my Twitter feed. There’s not a day that goes by without reading about something I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. There’s so much power in that. We saw it happen in North Carolina with the anti-LGBTQ legislation there: so many private companies stepped up and said, ‘We’re not coming anymore,” or Ringo Starr saying he wouldn’t perform there. All of that came about because people understood what was happening through social media. They probably wouldn’t have understood it at the same level just through mainstream media outlets.
One thing that was noteworthy and disheartening about your gubernatorial run was the extent to which your opponents dehumanized you, calling you “Abortion Barbie” and implying you were a bad or absent mother. How do we work with people who dehumanize us? How do we reach the other side when there are people who are willing to employ tactics like that? Or how do we counter those tactics?
I think we’re getting better and better at calling that out and shaming it when we see it happening. I see it with Hillary Clinton, the misogynistic and unfair lens through which she’s viewed. But those viewpoints are called out and shamed. That might not make those viewpoints stop, but we understand now that there is this double standard, this higher standard that women are held to.
I don’t think everyone on the other side thinks or acts that way. But there are a lot of folks out there who don’t fight fair. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight fair back—but we call them out when we see them doing it. We put misogyny into the marketplace of ideas and try to shut it down by shaming it, essentially.
What do you see the most important legislative priorities being for Texas and for the country as a whole?
I tend to come at this very much through the lens of gender equality and why it should matter to everyone in this country, male or female, Republican or Democrat. Though it sounds like a trite catchphrase, it is absolutely true: when women do better, we all do better. We’ve got a long way to go in this country. When the Pill first came on the scene and women began to enter and stay in the workforce in a way that they hadn’t before, it changed the economy. The economy grew tremendously as a consequence of women contributing to it.
Today, because of so many of the policies in place that still don’t recognize the importance of women in contributing roles to the economy, we see ourselves sliding backwards. We see the economic consequences of it. So we all have a stake in making sure women are paid equally. That we lift the minimum wage, because two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. That we have family leave policies that recognize the balance of career and family. And that we provide women with reproductive autonomy, because without it we absolutely cannot recognize our economic opportunity. They are inextricably intertwined.
There are so many others. What Hillary said in the debate recently, about all the barriers that are out there, they all deserve and demand our attention. I’m hopeful they’ll be addressed by whoever becomes our next president.
I can’t let you go without asking about the presidential election, so I’m glad you brought it up. You’re supporting Hillary Clinton, as you said. Can you talk about that decision?
It was easy for me. I first paid attention to politics and began to think about politics because of Hillary Clinton. I was in my late 20s when she, as First Lady, was working on universal healthcare. Not only was I paying attention because I thought it was such a profound and important policy, but because of the way she was treated as she was trying to move it forward. There was this idea that she wasn’t staying in her lane like she should. The misogynistic treatment that she received, and the lens through which she was defined and described. I really took notice of that as a young woman, and then I watched her as First Lady talk about how important women’s rights were. That may not sound so profound today, but believe me—back then, it was pretty damn profound.
And considering that she awakened me to this public conversation, I’ve been watching her ever since. The way that she fights for things that she really cares about, and the way that she doesn’t back down in the face of unbelievable scrutiny and criticism—I just think she’s a person of strength and conviction. And I believe that she is best suited at this time to take over and lead this country.
She’s having some trouble with younger voters, even young women, even young feminists. Why do you think that is?
If you think about it, if you’re 20 years old, just about everything that you hear about Hillary Clinton is purposefully manipulated to make her less appealing. There’s been a concerted effort for a long time by a number of people on the right side of the aisle to create a sense of disrespect and scorn for her.
I have a much longer experience of her. When I talk to young women about her and why I’ve gotten behind her in this race, I help them see her through the lens that I see her through, and the fights she’s engaged in during the three-plus decades in her public service career. She’s a person to be admired, and certainly not a person to be scorned as the right-wing and some of the media would invite people.
You mentioned Black Lives Matter and how inspired you’ve been by their work. But that’s also a group that’s criticized her for her stance in the ‘90s on mass incarceration. Do you understand the frustration that they and others may feel, that she hasn’t been as intersectional as they might wish?
I absolutely do. Look at what the consequence of that incarceration policy led to. It’s pretty sobering. And I think it’s fair to say, we need to own our past decisions and go forward in a way that won’t replicate them. I think she’s committed to doing that. But I certainly think it’s fair game to point out to a political candidate what it is that you disagree with. When people are running for office, it’s the ideal time to make sure you’re shaping their platform and having an impact on the way they look at things and the way they’ll think about things if and when they win that office.
If you had to vote for a Republican candidate, hypothetically, if you were forced to...
In the presidential? Of the people that are left?
Oh my goodness. [Laughing] I would never advocate not voting, but I think I would have to stay home.
I’m still so shocked by how far Trump has gotten.
I just can’t believe I’ve woken up in the reality where Ted Cruz is becoming the more mainstream, acceptable alternative in a Republican primary. What reality am I living in?
Especially for those of us who are familiar with Texas politics and know he used to be very concerned about the United Nations invading Texas to take our guns.
I just have to shake my head. I don’t know what to say.
What’s next for you? When are you going to for office again?
I don’t know. I’ve said in past interviews that I’d love the privilege of serving in office again. I really loved my time as a public servant. But I feel like I’m finding my way in the world and finding my way to stay engaged, and hopefully impactful. And I’m learning that creating an impact doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be in elected office to do it. If that path lays out before me I’ll certainly considering putting my name on the line again.
Because I do believe that we need more women in office. When we have women who have the capacity and wherewithal to step up to the plate, we almost have an obligation to do it. I also feel a bit of an obligation to show young women that we can get knocked down, but by God, we get back up and we fight to see a new day.
Wendy Davis. Headshot courtesy of Deeds Not Words