by Marcie Bianco · March 16, 2017
Former Texas state senator Wendy Davis
Back in 2014, Wendy Davis was simply a Democratic lawmaker in a red state. But an 11-hour filibuster against a bill that aimed to restrict Texas women’s access to abortion thrust her onto the national stage, turning her into a feminist icon overnight.
While she is largely known for her famous protest, the former Texas state senator and 2014 gubernatorial candidate knows change is not created in a moment but in a movement, deep and sustaining, intersectional and intergenerational. As women strike, march, and embrace electoral politics in unprecedented numbers, Davis is ready for the future of feminism. She says now is the time for women to show their power to resist assaults on their rights and to strategically move forward together.
“The Women’s March was just the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, “and it was a display of this kind of pent-up ‘good girl’ behavior that we’ve all been up to for a long time, where we’ve struggled to go along and get along.”
Invited to Stanford last week to speak about the organization she launched last year, Deeds Not Words, Davis spoke exclusively with Vox about the future of the women’s movement, what women’s leadership looks like post-election, and the issues that will set the political agenda for women’s rights in the coming years.
What did the 2016 election reveal to you about how America thinks about women as political leaders?
We have a lot of work to do. I faced this in my own gubernatorial race in Texas, which I lost in 2014. We have work to do not just in helping to reframe the way men may view women as leaders, but how women view women as leaders, particularly in executive offices. Research and polling has found that women are very comfortable — and so are men — supporting women in offices outside of the executive position. So US Senate, yes. Congress, yes. State representative, state senator, yes. But when it comes to that gubernatorial office, or the presidential one, we obviously have a lot of work to do.
The vast majority of governors in this country are men, and in large part it’s that vicious cycle where if you don’t see it, and therefore you don’t have modeled for you how successful women are in those roles, you don’t yet trust that women can do it. So it’s just a matter of breaking through that ceiling and demonstrating [that success].
This is one of the reasons I was so devastated [by] Hillary Clinton’s loss. Not only did I believe she would win, but I knew she was going to be an extraordinary president, and she was going to leave that legacy of demonstrating how incredibly not just capable, but talented, women can be in those roles.
Why misogyny won
Do you think the understanding of women’s leadership has changed after the 2016 presidential election? What is gained and lost by focusing on a “glass ceiling”?
What I see happening in that space is that women are stepping forward and being more vocal than I have seen women since the 1970s, and feeling much more open about exhibiting their feminism and calling out for recognition of differentiating treatment based on gender, and really pushing that conversation to the forefront.
The Women’s March was just the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen, and it was a display of this kind of pent-up “good girl” behavior that we’ve all been up to for a long time, where we’ve struggled to go along and get along. I think some of us have suffered from the idea that if we navigate our way more subtly through the challenges we face as women, that that will somehow serve our ultimate goal.
When Hillary Clinton lost that election, and not only that she did not succeed — or that we did not succeed in electing her — but the fact that it happened in such a misogynistic climate against a candidate who had exhibited tremendous sexism and misogyny, I think, was like a big cold splash of water in all of our faces that we decided, “No more being nice.”
It’s not that we’re being ugly now, but we’re being much more assertive, and we’re not demurring to the idea that this isn’t a conversation that we should have, and I’m really encouraged by that. And, while we did not break that glass ceiling — that ultimate one— we took a big leap forward in moving the gender equality conversation in a powerful way, and I think we’re going to sustain it.
Have you noticed a change in women’s — and particularly young women’s — sense of politics and political responsibility after the election?
Most definitely. Again, it was a wake-up call, I think, particularly for young women who did not fight these initial gender battles in the ’60s and ’70s. They recognize and own their responsibility to being a part of this conversation, and I think they see that these rights that we’ve taken for granted are not ones that are forever assured.
But not only that — I think we all went into this election believing Hillary would win, and that these conversations that we’ve been having about pay equity, and affordable child care, and family leave, and raising the minimum wage, which so disproportionately impacts women — I know I went into the election cycle believing we were on the precipice of doing great things on all those issues.
Now we’re doing everything we can to just hold our ground. What I’m excited to see is that women and men are pushing back very strongly on not only not losing ground but continuing to move forward in a really affirmative way on these other issues, and saying, “We’re not going to quiet down on them simply because we lost this election.”
What do you think the future of organizing looks like for the women’s movement?
It’s a really compelling question, and I think there’s some struggle going on about what the future of that looks like. Should it be directed, or should it be organic, where the existing framework around the March, for example, can be there to help guide the organic movement, or whether it ought to have some parameters around it to help guide it?
I’m 53, so I tend to be more on the parameter side of thinking. I think some of it, of course, will be determined by the acute nature of what’s happening. So, clearly, stepping forward and fighting on behalf of defending reproductive freedoms is job No. 1 for us. But I also want us to really be centered around our own economic opportunity and vibrancy, and that it is absolutely essential that these other pieces that we’ve been fighting for are moved forward in the conversation and not lost — and that a constructive and important and powerful way for us to do it is at the state level.
In states like California, for example, where we have the resources — the legislative resources, the human capital to move some of these things forward — we need to really focus on doing that, and we need to take a page out of the book of what the conservative movement has done in states where they have a stronghold. They’ve moved their agendas forward. Because they have done it state by state, they’re beginning to force that up to the national conversation. We need to be very focused on doing that at the state level, too, and forcing it up that way — much in the way that we’ve seen success in the minimum wage movement.
These are ways, I think, that we can really begin to advance some of women’s economic interest and making sure that we’re gaining ground on that.
What do you think are the three issues that define the women’s movement in 2017 and going into the 2018 election season?
The first thing I would say is that unless and until we are advancing more women in the political and private spheres, we won’t advance anything else. So it’s incredibly important that we are working hard to support women who are running for office, but also to force the examination in the private marketplace about what the reflection of women is like on boards, what the reflection of women is like in executive suites, and begin to use our public outcry, and consumer dollars, to direct them in a way that really brings attention around that issue.
So, issue No. 1: making sure that women are represented more in the public and private spheres.
No. 2 is the defensive mode of holding on to where we are, not only in abortion rights but in what is likely to happen in access to women’s reproductive care, and health care in general. I know from experience in Texas that the unwinding of funding and support for Planned Parenthood and other family contraception providers has had a devastating impact on women. What it’s meant, of course, is that women cannot control their own bodies; they can’t afford the access to that contraceptive care; and they are losing ground in the economy because they are trapped.
No. 3: defining a framework of what we want to see, and not simply be functioning from a place of playing defense. But to play offense. And to continue to work not just at the national level but at some local- and state-level politics as well on the things that will help to advance women’s economic opportunity.
At the base of gender equality, obviously, is that we have to set women up to succeed, and reproductive autonomy is at the core of that, but we also have to make sure that we give women incentive for being a part of the economy. That we have pay equity. That we do lift the minimum wage, because it would so disproportionately and positively impact women and their families. That we do have a conversation around the affordability of child care, and look at what some communities and states are doing to try to create more financial support for that. And, of course, family leave, which continues to hold us back.
If you look at where women in the US are at right now, and you look at where women are in other industrialized countries, for the first time since we gained reproductive freedoms in the 1970s — with the legalization of birth control and the legalization of abortion — our participation in the workforce is stagnating and declining, while these other industrialized countries are continuing to climb. They are because they are thinking about — they are not just thinking about, but doing it: subsidized child care, pay equity, family leave policies that work. And their economies are benefiting from that. We have to be pushing forward for those things here too.