Democratic state Senators Wendy Davis and Kirk Watson lead a rally at a protest before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas, July 1, 2013, where the Republican majority will again seek to pass sweeping abortion restrictions. (Reuters/Mike Stone)
In the struggle for equality, it’s not always about the wins. As we’ve now learned from Texas feminists, losing well—gloriously, even—can be almost as important. A sweeping abortion ban is expected to pass the state legislature nearly two weeks after it was shut down by State Senator Wendy Davis’s eleven-hour filibuster and a roaring pro-choice crowd. Its passage will be a travesty: it will force thirty-seven of the state’s forty-two abortion clinics to close; women will be compelled to carry sick and dying fetuses to term; and all abortions after twenty weeks will be banned—even for victims of rape or incest. It’s a horrible defeat for Texas women. But the impact of that loss may be softened somewhat by the extraordinary fight against it, one that brought a state-level bill to national attention and sent a clear message across the country: you can pass this bill, but you can not make us sit down.
What could have been just another hopeless cause—after all, Republicans had the votes to pass Senate Bill 5 easily, and everybody knew it—became a national referendum on misogyny and an online cause célèbre, thanks to the local and national organizations, bloggers, and individual activists who teamed up to form a “feminist army” to bring down SB 5. And they showed us what the future of feminism should look like in the process: a defiant stand, not a defensive crouch.
The fight over SB 5 played out like a Hollywood film—so much so that feminists are already debating who should play Wendy Davis in the movie version (Connie Britton is the current front-runner). The drama came complete with a sneaker-wearing heroine, a screaming crowd that won the battle in the final minutes and, of course, a sneering villain. Governor Rick Perry sure knows how to play that part—he didn’t waste any time taking a veiled swipe at Davis for being a teen mom who hadn’t “learned from her own example.” There was even the requisite bumbling politician, Representative Jodie Laubenberg, who insisted that a victim of sexual assault wouldn’t need an abortion anyway because rape kits “basically clean her out.” (I still believe that if you don’t understand the way reproduction works, you should be banned from legislating it.)
During Davis’s filibuster, Republicans tried to shut her up in every way possible. They argued that she broke Senate rules by getting assistance while putting on a back brace, and for speaking on topics—Planned Parenthood’s budget and sonogram laws—supposedly not “germane” to the bill. And with just a few minutes until the midnight deadline, after being ignored by the Senate president, State Senator Leticia Van de Putte said what most women watching in person or via livestream must have been asking themselves: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand, or her voice, to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
With that, the crowd erupted. They yelled for nearly fifteen minutes, making an orderly vote impossible.
Even when beaten, Republicans attempted to silence pro-choice voices. Despite more than 180,000 people watching the filibuster and vote online, they tried to cook the books: screen shots of the state legislature’s website revealed that Republicans had changed the date stamp on the vote to June 25, the last day of the session. But the GOP finally had to admit that SB 5 was dead. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards got the good news via a text message from Davis, and after she read it to the crowd, they broke out singing “The Eyes of Texas.”
I’ve watched the YouTube video capturing this moment at least a dozen times and it still makes me cry. Not because I was involved in the organizing or there on the ground—I wasn’t. Like those 180,000 others, I was watching with awe and admiration online. It was as if the nationwide battle over abortion rights came home to roost in Texas—a distillation not only of the widespread sexism and disregard for female bodily autonomy, but the fierce activism and pushback as well. It was all there in one place, in one capitol building. And it was beautiful to watch.
It’s also a sign of the shift that’s happening in the reproductive rights movement. It was only last year that Nancy Keenan, then president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, indicated in an interview with The Nation that the reason for the movement’s defensive tactics was that it simply didn’t have “the votes.” But getting off the defensive means caring about more than just the vote count—and it also means declining to fight on the opposition’s terms. Texas feminists knew the GOP had the votes, and they fought anyway. By refusing to give up on a done deal, Texas feminists brought their case to a national audience, reinvigorated pro-choicers and progressives, and—perhaps most important—reminded the people of their state and this country what monstrous fools the Republicans are. The GOP was revealed as a party whose members—without even knowing the most basic biology—think themselves justified to force pregnancies, no matter how traumatic, on the women of their state.
This is how you change public opinion. Yes, Republicans had the votes, but the majority of Texans already opposed SB 5, and only 16 percent think abortion should never be permitted. After this showdown, it’s hard to imagine pro-choice voters forgetting about this vote at the polls.
But we know that a political win for feminism is not the same thing as a win for women. Texans who need abortions will still suffer acutely because of this bill. Even so, I believe this partial win—or glorious loss—will mean a more feminist future for Texas. And by pushing us to rethink what effective activism is, maybe it will mean a more feminist future for us all.
The latest installment in Jessica Valenti’s new video series, “#AskJessica,” is “How Do You Get Men to Understand That Feminism Is Important?”