Women in the Texas Legislature: Lessons in Individual Actions that Serve to Empower Movements

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Thank you to Senator Wendy R. Davis and to Senator Leticia Van de Putte for, among other things, standing up for equality.  It may have only been a battle and not a war, but Senator Davis’ filibuster of the Texas anti-abortion bill sent home a message that women will not be silenced.  Senator Van de Putte joined Senator Davis on the floor of the Texas Legislature and with one question incited a crowd of protesters, who roared past the midnight deadline for passage of the bill thereby killing it.  Whatever people think of the bill, the events were lessons in advocacy and self-empowerment.  It was the American revolutionary way on display for all to see; the “People’s Filibuster” was live-streamed.  And that day in the Texas Legislature (June 25, 2013), one woman, joined by another, led a movement.

In response to Senator Davis’ win, Governor Rick Perry leveled a personal attack against her.  Speaking at the National Right to Life Convention, Governor Perry, in a backhanded compliment, referred to Senator Davis’ personal life.  He stated:  “She is the daughter of a single woman.  She was a teenage mother herself.  She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate.  It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example . . . .”  Senator Davis immediately responded and let everybody know that she will not be intimidated by a man who attacks her personally (even if he attempts to disguise his attack as a compliment) and thinks that he should decide what is best for women.  She tweeted more than 100,000 followers saying, ‘Today Governor Perry shamefully attacked me and my family, further exposing his belief that he knows what’s best for Texas women.’”

Governor Perry and his apologists can try to squirm out of the intent of his message by camouflaging his intentions and making excuses, now that he has been called on it.  However, the video shows the delivery of his words and reveals the agenda behind his rhetoric.  He was speaking before a group where many look down on people of different life experiences.  Condescendingly, he emphasized the word “eventually” to qualify how Senator Davis earned her law degree.  He put the finishing touch on his personal attack when, in an obviously patriarchal manner, he chastised her for not learning “from her own example.” 

Governor Perry is wrong.  Senator Davis learned from her experiences, which is why she has become the formidable woman she is today—the woman who stood up to those in control for eleven hours to filibuster the anti-abortion bill.  Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tried to stop the running of the clock by deciding that Senator Davis’ discussion of mandatory ultrasound testing, in reference to an abortion bill, was “off-topic.”  This was a clear illustration of how the privilege to make arbitrary and subjective decisions encourages abuse of power at the hands of the decision-makers.  Lt. Gov. Dewhurst’s decision was an attempt to silence Senator Davis and, ultimately, a means to try to achieve the desired final outcome: passage of the anti-abortion bill. There was even an effort to alter the timestamp of the voting record, but news organizations were watching and they blew the whistle on the discrepancy. Senator Van de Putte has called for an investigation.

Fortunately, Senator Davis was not alone.  When Lt. Gov. Dewhurst halted Senator Davis’ filibuster, Senator Van de Putte stood up and in a powerful voice asked:  “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”  She had become frustrated after being ignored by her colleagues when she was trying to speak on the matter.  After all, she had driven directly from her father’s burial to oppose the abortion bill.  During an interview, Senator Van de Putte explained that she had to scream in order to be recognized.  Her assertiveness is what the protesters needed to rally them to battle and victory.  They immediately let their voices be heard in unison and ran out the clock.  During an interview, Senator Davis called Senator Van de Putte “a true heroine.”  Senator Van de Putte later acknowledged that she was emotionally drained and had to be encouraged by another woman to speak up.

For more about Senator Davis, read Who is Wendy Davis? by Lydia DePillis. For more about Senator Van de Putte, read Latina Legislator: Leticia Van de Putte and the Road to Leadership, written by Sharon Navarro.  I hope that these women’s advocacy inspires more Americans to join in a comprehensive movement of equality for all and to stand up with others whenever we witness injustice and inequality.

–Maritza Reyes

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