The Standing Woman: When a Texas senator refused to sit back

Talking for more than 11 hrs without sitting,eating,drinking or leaning,a Senator won a battle for women’s right to abortion—even if short-lived

Written by New York Times | Austin | Published:July 2, 2013 5:12 am

Manny Fernandez

She was a state senator Tuesday morning. By Wednesday,she was a political celebrity known across the nation. But also hoarse,hungry and thirsty.

The leg-numbing filibuster by Senator Wendy Davis,a Democrat from Fort Worth—in which she stood and talked for more than 11 hours,never sitting,eating,drinking or even using the bathroom,to help block passage of an anti-abortion Bill supported by the state’s top Republicans—was not the longest such marathon,by Texas standards. Thirty-six years earlier,Senator Bill Meier filibustered a Bill for 43 hours.

But it didn’t matter.

Her feat gained thousands of Twitter followers in a matter of hours. Pictures of the sneakers she wore zoomed across television screens. The press corps demanded to know her shoe brand. (Mizuno,it turned out.) Hundreds waited for hours at the Capitol to sit in an upstairs gallery and watch her in action.

Even President Barack Obama noticed,posting a tweet on Tuesday that read,“Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”

The Bill seeks to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy,require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as hospital-style surgical centres and mandate that a doctor who performs abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Opponents say it could lead to the closing of most of Texas’s 42 abortion clinics.

Davis,50,has known long odds and,for Democrats,was the perfect symbol in a fight over what a woman can do. She was a teenager when her first child was born,but managed as a single mother to pull herself from a trailer park to Harvard Law School to a hard-fought seat in the Texas Senate.

On Tuesday night,as Davis stood in her salmon-coloured running shoes and spoke about the Bill from 11.18 am to about 10 pm,Republicans monitored her every move and word,waiting to catch her violating the obscure filibuster rules of Texas,which prohibited her from leaning on her desk or straying off topic. At one point they objected when a fellow Democrat tried to help put a back brace around Davis,who at that point had been standing for about seven hours straight.

“I’m tired,but I’m pleased to know that a spotlight is shining on the failure of our leadership,” Davis told reporters at 3.20 am Wednesday.

But the celebration was short-lived. Hours later,Governor Rick Perry announced that a second special session would be held so lawmakers could take up the abortion Bill once more. Analysts said the Bill would probably pass this time because Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate will be unable to delay for an entire 30-day session.

Elected to the Senate in 2008,Davis has shown charisma and guts,and her life story has moved voters. At the age of 14,she worked after-school jobs to help support her mother and three siblings.

“My mother only had a sixth-grade education,” she said. She added that she fell through the cracks in high school,and after she graduated,got married and divorced,becoming a single mother by age 19.

Then,a co-worker showed her a brochure for Tarrant County College,and she took classes to become a paralegal,working two jobs. From there she received a scholarship to attend Texas Christian University and then went on to Harvard. Now she has two daughters,ages 24 and 30. She has been dating a former mayor of Austin,Will Wynn,who was with her in the Senate for the Bill.

In 2011,she had filibustered a budget Bill that included huge cuts to public education.

Rocking back and forth in her sneakers on Tuesday—to ease the pain in her back,she said—Davis read from letters sent to her office,testimony submitted to committees and an article published in The Austin Chronicle. At 10 pm,the Senate’s presiding officer,Lt Gov David Dewhurst,sustained a violation for straying off the topic,which Democrats disputed.

As the clock neared midnight,Republicans tried to end the debate and were shouted down. At midnight,another senator stood at Davis’s desk and raised her arm in victory. The crowd roared. It was not until about 1 am—about 14 hours after she first rose—that she quickly walked to the Senate lounge and,for the first time,sat down.

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