Want More From Your Politicians? Demand It, Says Wendy Davis — Or Run Yourself

Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis/Getty Images.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
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Before Elizabeth Warren persisted, Wendy Davis would not yield. The former Texas lawmaker, who became a household name back in 2013 when she filibustered a bill in the Austin Senate that would have placed draconian limitations on abortion access, may have stepped away from political office for the moment — but that doesn’t mean she’s given up the mic. Last year, Davis launched Deeds Not Words, a platform that advocates for, well, pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
“The motto came from the suffragettes — it was their way of expressing frustration with a lot of talk and no action on women gaining the right to vote,” Davis told Refinery29 on a hot March afternoon in Austin. She had just stepped off the stage at a SXSW Planned Parenthood rally off the city’s main drag, where she reminded the crowd that the Friendship State has already shown us what happens when you restrict women’s reproductive health access: nothing good.
Deeds Not Words helps to combat the erosion of reproductive rights and civil liberties by connecting people with their legislators and demanding action — or else. We spoke with Davis about why Dems and Republicans, alike, shouldn’t sacrifice progress by sticking to their own sides of the aisle; what advice she’d give to Melania Trump, given the chance, and the reason that holding our representatives accountable is America’s best hope for the future.
You said once that things don’t change unless you’re prepared to fight. We’re in a moment where we’re prepared to fight — or at least it looks like we’re prepared to fight. But what do you think are the front lines of that fight right now?
“At the state level. I know we’re all captivated by what’s happening nationally, and it’s important that we are. But what a lot of people don’t understand is that so much of what we see at the national level actually begins at the state level: the assault against voter rights, the assault against immigrant rights, the assault against women’s reproductive freedoms — all of these things have a basis in state legislation that has been moving them forward.
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"We have to get connected to what’s happening at the state level in order to really make the kind of change we want to see, and we actually have an opportunity to be more effective there. Particularly, I think it is important that we draw people’s attention to the legislative actions in their own states that help them wake up to the reality that some of the people who represent them are not truly representing their values, and that it’s up to us, and incumbent upon us, to exercise our votes to make a difference in those states.
It’s important to to tap into your values and to get energized about issues. But we think it’s really important to make sure people are connected not just to the actions they can take in reaching out to existing representatives on these issues but also to change the face of their representation through the work that they can do for candidates — obviously, through their vote but most importantly by running for office themselves.”
One of the representation gaps that I think is really interesting is about abortion. Polling data shows that, overwhelmingly, Americans-at-large are in favor of women’s reproductive choice. And yet, we have plenty of politicians claiming otherwise. Where is the message being lost?
"People have this disconnect between their values and their belief that government is actually going to do something to intrude upon that. I’ve always been more of a mind that we should vote for people who speak our values and to reality. There are many people who do support women’s reproductive freedoms but who aren’t voting with value because they’ve become conditioned to believe that the landscape of women’s reproductive freedoms is safe. Women’s reproductive rights are not safe. We all have to own our role in that and have a bit of a self-reckoning about our own responsibility in creating the dynamics that exist today."
What should women be most afraid of right now, not just under the Trump administration but in this moment more largely?
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“When I think about what’s worth fighting for, I think about all of the tools that provide each and every one of us an opportunity to live what it means to be an American. That means: The promise that if you work hard, you can realize your greatest dreams for yourself. There’s a lot attached to that — education is a huge part of it, and we are on the precipice of the dismantling of our public education system in this country right now. It’s one of the things that scares me the most about this administration and the fact that the man in charge doesn’t even understand — or care — what the impact of that will mean, because it won’t touch his life.”

Women’s reproductive rights are not safe. We all have to own our role in that and have a bit of a self-reckoning about our own responsibility in creating the dynamics that exist today.

Wendy Davis
"Reproductive freedoms are a part of making sure that we have the ability to realize our opportunities for ourselves. Following the legalization of birth control in 1972 and then abortion in 1973, women’s participation in the full-time work force skyrocketed; it almost doubled. Not only did that mean a greater lifestyle and opportunity for women, it meant a much stronger economy because the contributions women have made to the economy have been extraordinary. A strong education system, women’s reproductive freedoms, respect for individuals regardless of their sexuality or sexual identities, respect for individuals who are here forming the backbone of work in our country, regardless of their legal status: All of it shapes the strength of who we are as a country — and every bit of it is threatened right now. So it’s hard to say what the one thing that worries me most is because it all worries me — every bit of it threatens the very fabric of who we are."
The long-held fact that gender equality is an economic lever has been more top of conversation lately. Have you noticed an uptick?
“I think we need to talk about that more, and it's the way to connect the conversation about women and our reproductive freedoms to why it really is something that serves us all. It’s back to that very worn statement: When women do better, we all do better. It’s very true and it’s not just about our reproductive freedoms: It’s about pay equity, it’s about family leave, it’s about affordable childcare, it’s about lifting the minimum wage that so disproportionately would impact women beneficially. All of that forms a support for women, which creates a better economy for all of us, so we all have a vested stake."
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Ivanka Trump brought up the intersection between maternity leave and the economy during her RNC speech almost a year ago. In that moment, her speech seemed contextually revolutionary, coming from a conservative pulpit. But it was also divisive, because she was advocating for a policy of incremental progress, not for comprehensive family leave. If the offer for a maternity policy in the absence of family leave is on the table, should we accept it or continue to demand more?
“First of all, I’ve never believed in being a diehard partisan: It doesn’t benefit anyone for either side of the aisle to behave that way. In fact one of the beautiful things about being in the Texas Senate, years ago, was that it truly was a bipartisan body. It’s not that way anymore, but we have to work together to really accomplish what we promise our constituencies we’re going to deliver for them.
"Should we get behind incremental change? I do think if there are areas that we can find agreement with this administration on, we should look for ways to move those forward. Should we fight to inform the conversation so that it’s not limited to maternity leave? Yes. But should we be proud of advancing our interests incrementally? Yes as well. A lot of times, I think we lose the good while we work for the perfect. I’ve been in politics long enough to understand that if you can find the good, you need to embrace it. I would love to believe that the expressed interests of Ivanka Trump in her speech would be ones that would be mirrored by the work of this administration. I’m skeptical of that. But I’ll be the first one to say, ‘let’s try to work together on it,’ if it advances.”
Speaking of working on things together: Are you aware of more bipartisan collaboration, and particularly more male public figures, advocating for issues that have traditionally been “women’s issues”?
“I don’t know that I could say I see more male public figures doing that, though I’m sure that’s the case. What I am seeing, though, is a greater and greater number of men who are proclaiming themselves feminists. When you looked at those marches that took place around the country and around the world, the percentage of men who participated was extraordinary. So I do think we’re seeing a tremendous uptick in men feeling a responsibility to be a part of this fight — just as we see straight people helping to fight for LGBT equality and on and on. Empathy is a very powerful tool to create a consensus around pushing for a value.
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“The challenge that we face is that there are some people who literally lack the empathy gene, for whatever reason — truly, there are people who do not possess it. Their life experiences maybe have not shaped them in a way that helps them to form that. What I continue to be disappointed by are the number of politicians who know in their hearts and minds know that they’re wrong on these issues, but are more interested in feeding a voting base they feel is going to reward them personally at the polls than they are doing the right thing. There’s a shocking amount of that actually, and it’s not just men: It’s women too.
"We all have to own our responsibility to watch what they’re doing and to replace them when they aren’t reflecting our values. Because unless — and until — these politicians feel like they’re going to be held accountable by voters, they’re not going to change their stripe. No matter how hard we try to pull at their heartstrings, it isn’t going to happen.”
Okay, last but not least: We have a new First Lady, and she has said in the past that she would make cyberbullying her signature issue. As someone who has dealt with her fair share of online harassment, what advice would you give Melania Trump, given the chance?
“That it’s incredibly important. That I’m grateful she wants to focus on it, and that starting with organizations that have been working on this very issue will be a key place to putting together what will be a successful agenda in combatting it. That this is an issue a lot of people have been working on, for good reason and for needed reason, so I hope she’ll rely on the voices of other perspectives to help shape the position that she stakes out on it — if indeed she does stake out a position.”
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