Ana Marie Cox
Thank God for unruly women. Unruly women are responsible for pretty much everything good that’s happened in Texas.
Sometime around midnight last night, a female state senator in Texasstood up under the capitol dome and asked a version of the single most important question that can be asked in a democracy: “At what point does a female senator need to raise her voice to be heard over the male colleagues in the room?”
There are a lot of other versions of this question – “What do the oppressed have to do in order move the wheels of justice?” – but only one answer: Make some noise. Make a lot of noise. Noise draws scrutiny, and it is the enduring legacy of American democracy that injustice fully exposed does not stand. Yesterday’s supreme court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act illustrated that civil rights progress must be jealously guarded, but it did not invalidate the century’s worth of evidence that the arc of history bends toward justice.
Last night’s eventual defeat of a draconically restrictive abortion law in Texas was another percentage degree of rotation in that “bending toward justice” curve. (Among other things, it would have closed all but five of the 42 clinics now open to women who want abortions in the state. Read details here
Noise, and lots of it, was the answer given after Senator Leticia Van De Putte asked the question, when protesters gathered to support a filibuster against that bill erupted in chants and applause that interrupted proceedings for a full 15 minutes. It was a sign of things to come.
Pro-choice activists had initially hoped to stall passage of the bill via a filibuster by another female Democratic senator, Wendy Davis. Davis had already held the floor for 10 hours when Van de Putte was forced to beg Senator Robert Duncan for the recognition he had just easily granted to the male Republican senator seated directly in front of her. (All of this is going to make a great ad for Democrats everywhere in November of 2014. Great rebranding, Republicans!)
Davis’ feat of endurance will go down in the history books, to be sure. She is the first female Texas senator to put on such a performance. And then there’s the astounding turnout of supporters (see some mind-blowing images here). Let’s not forget the head-thumpingly ignorant statements the bill’s proponents had made: one Republican used the notion of masturbating fetuses to justify its restrictions, another appeared to argue that hospital “rape kits” are a form of abortion. I don’t think it’s sexist to notice, further, that Davis is a camera-ready spokesperson with an uncanny resemblance to “Mrs Coach” of the Texas-set “Friday Night Lights” TV series – whose personal back-story is itself the stuff of Hollywood: once a teenage single mother, she worked her way through college to eventually graduate with honors from Harvard Law. Oh, and she became the most visible state legislator in the country last night after surviving a redistricting challenge in 2011 that was only beat back by her use of a suit under the Voting Rights Act.
And no drama is complete without a villain! Duncan slides into that role, as well as Lt Governor David Dewhurst, who oversaw most of the session. Texas Republicans’ niggling over the picayune filibuster rules would give the plot some comic relief, too: they gave one of the “three strikes” allowed under the rules for accepting help in adjusting the back brace she wore to aid her during her marathon speechifying (senators are not allowed to lean on anything during their time). They challenged her two other times for not being on topic, because talking about ultrasounds or funding for reproductive health are not “germane” to abortion, apparently.
All of that made what happened last night gripping television – or, er, livestreaming, as no cable new network aired the session (#fail) – but none of those things dramatized the power of direct democracy more than the spontaneous “people’s filibuster” that finally broke the back of the GOP’s power play. As Duncan steamrolled Democratic senators to call a vote on the bill, hundreds of protesters – mostly women – watching from the gallery and up in the rotunda simply would not shut up. They chanted. They screamed. They yelled. They applauded. They voted with their voices and their bodies until finally the chaos in the chamber made it impossible for the Republicans to finish their roll-call vote before the midnight deadline. It’s perfectly fitting that women would use direct, physical action to keep conservatives from having a say on what to do with their bodies.
Republican senators did try a little electronic slight of hand – someone changed the timestamp of the vote as seen on the legislature’s website. But it’s hard to commit vote fraud when over 100,000 people are watching. In the end, Republican lawmakers had to admit defeat:
“With all the ruckus and noise going on,” Mr Dewhurst said, he could not complete administrative duties to make the vote official and sign the bill.
It’s true that the bill is not dead. Republicans will try to push it through again. But let’s pan the camera back to events last night.
As the proceedings became more and more tumultuous, state troopers threaded through the crowd, making some arrests and trying to clear the gallery. Protesters were told they were being “unruly”. Texas has a long tradition of female agitators: Governor Ann Richards. Representative Barbara Jordan. Columnist Molly Ivins. Every single woman yelling inside the capitol last night. Thank God for unruly women. Unruly women are responsible for pretty much everything good that’s happened in Texas.