let her speak

On Wendy Davis, the Supreme Court, and Speaking Out As Women

At first it was just a few women speaking alone. The week began with Ruth Bader Ginsburg reading aloud her dissents in the Supreme Court’s decisions to gut the Voting Rights Act and narrow employment-discrimination protections under the withering eye-roll of her male colleague. Then it was Sen. Wendy Davis taking to the floor of the Texas State Legislature to filibuster a restrictive abortion bill while fielding questions from one after another male lawmaker, some of whom asked whether she understood the Roe v. Wade decision. (Davis is a Harvard-educated attorney.) It triggered a flashback to every time I’ve been in a room full of powerful men and thought, “Well, there’s no other woman here. Guess I’m going to be the one to say this … ”

While the Supreme Court rulings — both Monday’s disappointments and yesterday’s landmark gay rights decision — are of huge national importance, it was the hours-long saga of Davis’s filibuster that captured this emotion on Tuesday. Women, people of color, gay people — anyone who’s underrepresented in national politics — are so desperate to see ourselves reflected and our interests voiced in real time. Not by a small throng of protesters outside on the capitol steps or by an encampment in lower Manhattan, but in the center of the action, by a credible and even-voiced and authoritative representative, someone who actually has the power to change things. This isn’t to say that straight white men never speak up for our interests. But there is a level of comfort in knowing that the person speaking has lived your experience. And shared experience is also a galvanizing force. By the time Davis had stopped talking, hours later, this week was no longer about a few women speaking up. They were joined by women in the Texas Senate chamber, out the door in the rotunda, outside the capitol building, and on Twitter, and all over the world.

We couldn’t look away from Wendy Davis. During her more than ten-hour filibuster of a bill that would drastically restrict abortion access by closing all but five clinics in the state and ban most abortions after twenty weeks, Davis got personal. She didn’t just rattle off statistics about how women who seek later-term abortions are often doing so as a last resort to protect their own health. She also talked about her own ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition. Davis didn’t just recite talking points about how women take these decisions seriously. She read letters from dozens of women who struggled with the choice to abort a pregnancy — then follow through on that choice. Davis didn’t just explain that this bill would reduce the number of abortion providers in the state to only five far-flung locations. She calmly explained that there was a period of her life during which she could barely afford the gas money to get to and from work, let alone traverse several counties for a $500 medical procedure. She talked about being poor and uninsured and relying on Planned Parenthood. “This,” Davis said, “has been my life.”

It’s become clear this week that objective facts of Americans’ lives — that some of us are in loving, committed relationships with someone of the same gender, or that some of us have needed an abortion at some point, or that some of us have had a racist or sexist supervisor make our lives a living hell — are still contentious. Our everyday experiences are up for debate. The burden of proof is on women and gay people and nonwhite Americans to justify their lives, to explain to those who have never felt this sort of powerlessness or discrimination that it’s very much real. Somehow that was all distilled for me when, after Wendy Davis explained in patient detail her ectopic pregnancy and her financial struggles, one of her colleagues retorted, “You know, Senator Davis, this bill really is about women’s health.” As if these things were completely unrelated.

For us, they are related. They are real. Like hundreds of thousands of people, I listened to Davis speak — for me, for Texas women, for all women — thanks to a grainy livestream and obsessively refreshing Twitter. Katie Naranjo, a local women’s rights advocate who spent more than thirteen hours in the Senate chambers on Tuesday, told me on the phone that night, “As she was reading the testimony of all the women who weren’t allowed to testify before the committee, we all knew she was our voice. We were her and she was us.”

She was us. And so when Davis was yanked from the floor on a parliamentary technicality — Republicans said she violated the rules of order by making points about women’s health that they deemed were “not germane” to the women’s health legislation under consideration — other women rose to speak. Or tried to. Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who had rushed to the capitol directly from her father’s funeral earlier that day, was granted the floor and asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

It was at this point the women in the chamber, who had been shushed for hours, erupted in a chant of “Let her speak! Let her speak!” The chorus had a distinctly female, strangely jubilant timbre. It had been Davis’s intention to speak until midnight, not yielding the floor until the legislative session expired so that the abortion-restricting bill would not be able to come to a vote. But when she was pulled from the floor just minutes before midnight, the women who had assembled picked up where she left off, drowning out the legislators’ attempts to call a vote.

We are her. She is us. Let her speak.

“Senator Van de Putte came back from her father’s funeral and they wouldn’t recognize her even though the entire gallery heard her yell, ‘motion to adjourn,’” Naranjo said. “They cut off all the Democrats’ microphones. We knew there was no justice or legitimacy, so that’s when we started yelling.”

The women in the gallery yelled for twenty minutes. They yelled for Wendy Davis and for Ann Richards and for every strong Texas woman they’d ever known and loved. They yelled for their sisters and friends and daughters. They yelled because they’d been told to keep quiet all day long, to sit down and respect the rules of order that were all stacked against them. They yelled to be heard. “It felt great, because we were a part of something,” my friend Asha Dane’el, who rushed to the Senate gallery after she finished her shift at work on Tuesday, wrote me over Gchat. “Feminists and women who are pro-choice have been disenfranchised in Texas for a long time. Last session, the legislature really wreaked havoc on our state with the budget cuts to health care and public education. We watched Planned Parenthood get gutted. Tonight, and the other nights we fought this bill, felt like we were doing something, and getting something back.”

In his announcement that the vote had not gone through and the bill had failed, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst explained poutily, “An unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics, disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies.” But this wasn’t Occupy. It wasn’t a movement of outsiders raging against the system. This was a group of citizens — most of them women — working at the very center of the halls of power. It was a joint effort, capped off with bear-hugs and text-message emoticons, between women politicians and activists and citizens and long-distance supporters who spoke together and all said, “No.”

After each election, when we tally the percentage of women represented in each legislative body, there’s always a reasonable op-ed that points out that gender is not necessarily the best predictor of voting behavior. (See: Bachmann, Michele.) As I have written many times, “A woman candidate is not the same thing as a woman’s candidate.” But last night was a gut-level reminder of the power of shared, lived experience in politics — and what happens when you ask one too many times that women prove their experience is legitimate. This is, to a certain extent, what makes this week’s Supreme Court’s decisions this week so powerful, too. The Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act relied on big-picture statistics that many black Americans felt did not represent their lived experience with race. And the ruling to overturn DOMA, in essence, did the opposite: The justices validated relationships that gay Americans had struggled for years to convey as deeply important in their sameness to an often blissfully ignorant straight majority.

Of course, the outcome in Texas last night was basically neutral. Late yesterday, Gov. Rick Perry called another special session and re-introduce the same bill that was just shouted down. There and in a dozen other states, we’re going to have to continue to explain our lived experience. Yesterday, Ohio legislators introduced a bevy of abortion restrictions. Still, “I feel like something’s shifted,” Jessica Luther, a women’s rights activist who has been at the Texas capitol throughout the entire special session, told me. She says that messages have been pouring in from activists in Tennessee and Georgia and the Carolinas. Texas gives us hope, they say. We heard you speak. We’re ready to do the same.

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Wendy Davis, SCOTUS, and Speaking Out As Women