Wendy Davis On “Disgust” For The GOP & What’s At Stake In 2016

Update: Wendy Davis joined Refinery29 for a live interview at our Refinery29's New York office. Check out our Vote Your Values Facebook page or the video below to hear Davis' thoughts on her new initiative, the 2016 campaign, and the fight for reproductive rights.
This story was originally published May 3, 2016.
Credit: Alison Narro
When Wendy Davis thinks back to the marathon filibuster that made her a household name, the first thing to pop into her head isn't aching legs, her beloved pink sneakers, or the slow ticking of the clock as she held the floor of the state Senate for 12 hours. It's the thousands of people who filled the Texas Capitol to join her in her call to block what was then Senate Bill 5, legislation that would severely impact abortion access in the state. "A large part of my memory from that day wasn’t the moments of when I was upset or tired, stressed about making it to the end with all of the arcane, ridiculous, broken rules," Davis told Refinery29. "It was that there were moments when I could literally feel the people in the Capitol underneath my feet, and literally could feel the world vibrating because of their energy and noise and movement."
"It made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that we were all locked in this battle together," she said. Nearly three years later, Davis is embarking on a new push to unite women behind issues and causes that impact their lives. The former state senator and 2014 gubernatorial candidate is launching Deeds Not Words, a new initiative aimed at connecting "passionate women to resources, policy-making tools, and each other." The goal, the site says, is to be "more than a movement." "Our deeds have to be a part of it, have to follow our words in order to really realize change," Davis believes. The Democratic powerhouse sat down with Refinery29 to speak more about Deeds Not Words, what's at stake for women in the 2016 election, and what she would do if she weren't in politics.

My superpower would be to force every Republican candidate and office holder to trade places for one real day with a woman in poverty.

Wendy Davis, founder of Deeds Not Words
Our recent Vote Your Values poll found that 78% of millennial women believe the outcome of this election will impact their lives. What do you think is at stake for women in this election?
"I think we’re at a real fork in the road, if you will, depending on the outcome of this election. And it’s not something that the candidates have been shy about expressing their values and their views on. "On the Republican side, we see candidates that are either ignoring or demonstrating hostility towards issues that create equal opportunity for women in this country. Certainly we’ve seen hostility towards reproductive freedom and reproductive autonomy, and we women know that our reproductive autonomy and our economic opportunity are absolutely intricately linked. "When you begin to talk about taking away our reproductive autonomy, you are going to also take away our economic opportunity. So, that in and of itself is a big, big issue. On the Democratic side of the aisle, we hear the expression of values that can help to move us forward in terms of realizing full gender equality in this country: access to affordable education, access to affordable, quality child care, access to and support for our reproductive freedoms. "So, we have a choice — are we going to go with an outcome, a candidate, an office holder, who is going to fight for the things that will move the ball and advance us toward our goal of gender equality, or are we going to go with a candidate who has expressed an outright hostility to that?"
Photo: Emily Ng/The Daily Texan/AP Photo.
State Senators Wendy Davis, left, and Sylvia R. Garcia cast their votes against Senate Bill 5 amidst the cheers of the Senate Gallery, in Austin, Texas.
How do you feel when you hear about continued pushes to defund Planned Parenthood and to enact more TRAP laws across the country?
"I’m frustrated, angered. I feel so much disgust for politicians who are using women’s bodies and our reproductive freedoms as political points in their personal desires to gain votes and gain higher office. People who are willing to sacrifice the health of women across this country and to run on platforms that are removing that access to hundreds of thousands of women in this country because they believe they’ll score some political points — it’s the most unappealing part of politics that there is. To me, it's the figurative parallel to literally putting your foot on someone’s head and holding them down. "Now, one of the other things I thought was really interesting about the poll that you did is that, while there is a dramatic number of women who believe that this election will have an impact on their lives, there were also certainly a large number of these women who said they hadn’t registered to vote. I think we have to own that responsibility. These people don’t get elected by themselves. "If we want people [in office] who are going to fight for us, who are going to keep those things from happening, and who are literally putting forward the idea that women deserve equal opportunity in this world, we've got to do our part, we've got to show up and vote for them. I hope that your readers will look at that and do some self-reflection in terms of what they see in that poll and perhaps maybe in themselves, and do some soul searching about playing the key role that each of them can play."

If I sit down in front of the TV, it’s usually one of those fun series, like House of Cards...those are one of my guilty escapes.

Wendy Davis, founder of Deeds Not Words
The presidential election — especially this year — sucks up so much of our political oxygen. But a lot of laws that impact the lives of people, including many measures targeting abortion access right now, actually happen at the state level. In your opinion, as a former state legislator and a former gubernatorial candidate, why is it so important for women to look down the ballot and engage in those races?
"Very few states actually hold their state [office] elections during the presidential campaign calendar. Instead, they hold them in 2014 or 2018, when we’re not all excited about and thinking about politics because it’s not in our media feeds every single day. "Those state elections are some of the most important in terms of shaping the conditions of our lives. State legislators are making decisions about the affordability of the colleges that we attend. They are the ones who are making decisions about women’s access to reproductive health care in this country. We have an opportunity to weigh in and show up and to make sure that people who are there representing us are those that reflect our values. "Yet in 2014, only 23% of people between the age of 18 and 33 voted in those elections. By 2020, that same age group existing today will be 40% of the total voting population in the country. So imagine the difference they could make if they showed up and weighed in every time they had an opportunity to vote. I believe in them — I believe they’re going to show up, I believe that this is a nut we can crack. I believe they’re going to shape the future of this country and turn it into a place that they want to see."
You’re supporting Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. There's an ongoing narrative that she struggles with voters under 30. In our own poll of millennial women, she trailed rival Bernie Sanders. Why do you think millennial women should support her?
"I think Hillary, as a public figure, more than any other person who has held public office in my lifetime, has been subjected to a barrage of criticism that has created in the minds of our young voters who they think she is. They’ve grown up hearing lots of negatives, and I consider one of my important roles as a surrogate for her campaign [to be] helping young women to see her through the lens that I see her through. "When I was in my late 20s, Hillary Clinton was the first political figure who really caught my attention. [That] was when she was first lady and she was fighting for universal health care, and she was being condemned roundly by people who thought she ought to stay in her lane, that she ought to know her place as first lady, and ought not to be working on the path of policy. "I saw her weather that storm by putting her head down and keeping her eye on the prize, which was the goal of making sure that health care was received as a right, not as something of having the privilege to have. "I also watched her fight for women’s rights at the Beijing Women’s Conference while she was a first lady…against a lot of criticism that she ought not to go, that it wasn’t an appropriate thing for her to do. Going and speaking out about why we all ought to see women’s rights as human rights — and why we all have a shared stake at advancing them — was profound and important. It was very powerful for me to see a woman stepping up and speaking up on behalf of things that really mattered to me."

When I was in my late 20s, Hillary Clinton was the first political span who really caught my attention.

Wendy Davis, founder of Deeds Not Words
The Supreme Court is currently considering Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a challenge to the abortion restrictions that you filibustered and fought against. How do you feel heading into decision time this June?
"There’s so much at stake. Obviously with an eight-member bench, we may wind up with a four-four split. The silver lining is that whatever decision they make will be delegated to Texas. If they make a full court decision, it won’t be one that proliferates as law throughout the country, which may have been the case if Justice Antonin Scalia [who died in February] were a part of that decision. "I still am hopeful that we’ll have a 5 to 3 decision in favor of the plaintiffs in that case, and that Justice [Anthony] Kennedy will join with the others on the court who I know support the idea that our constitutionally protected access to abortion care in this country ought not to depend on where we live or how much money we have in the bank."

How have women in Texas already been impacted by the law?
"Before that law was passed, we had 42 functioning abortion clinics in the state. With the implementation of a portion of the law, we now have 19. If the remainder of the law goes into effect, which is what the Supreme Court is looking at right now, we’ll have 10 at the most. "What that means — with 19 still in place — is that our waiting time for women to access abortion care has gone up to more than 20 days in most instances. It means in many areas of our state — all areas outside of our urban, highly populated cities — women have lost their access and have to travel extended distances, and be able to afford, not only the travel, the time off of work, but also an overnight stay, and, if they have children at home, child-care arrangements. That has priced women out of the ability to access abortion care. It gets to my point about the fact that our constitutionally protected abortion rights ought not to depend on where we live or how much money we have in the bank. Sadly, that’s the situation that we see here."
Photographed by Joshua Yospyn.
Protestors outside the Supreme Court as justices heard oral arguments in the challenge to Texas' abortion restrictions.
Looking back on your filibuster of these proposals that were later enacted [as HB2], what do you remember most about that experience?
"More than anything, what sticks in my mind is how extraordinary it was that so many people showed up. I was told by the safety officers that it was the first time in the history of the Texas Capitol that it had to be closed because they were filled to capacity. That’s extraordinary. It was really because they showed up, and paid attention and weighed in, and literally used their voices to scream with all their might in the last few minutes of that evening, that we were successful in killing that bill. "It showed the power that can come from us deciding that we’re going to get up [off] the couch and do something about an issue that matters. And I think it was such a poignant and beautiful example of the power of democracy, and how we really can make a difference." In addition to the response in the Capitol, many followed online. The hashtag #StandWithWendy trended widely. Did that experience with social media inform what you’re doing now in creating online community platforms for women?
"It absolutely did. That day was an example of hashtag activism at its best — the understanding and the awareness of what was going on in Texas because of social media, because of a hashtag that was being used. But the next step that was a piece of it was that that hashtag created action, as well. "I think when we look at some of the most successful grassroots political experiences that we’ve seen in this country in the last couple of years, both of those pieces exist. The Black Lives Matter movement is a great example of a hashtag that created a conversation, that created an awareness and an engagement on an issue that mattered very much, but it didn’t stop there. It went on to become a movement of people who were showing up and fighting for things that they wanted to see change, and it’s having a tremendously powerful and important impact as a consequence of that. "That’s why the name of our organization is what it is. Our deeds are such an important part of actually realizing our goals — our words form absolutely an essential piece of that — but our deeds have to be a part of it, have to follow our words in order to really realize change."

Our constitutionally protected access to abortion care in this country ought not to depend on where we live or how much money we have in the bank.

Wendy Davis, founder of Deeds Not Words
Tell us more about what Deeds Not Words plans to do.
"Deeds Not Words is something that takes the shape of three different outreach efforts. One of them is a digital hub, a space where young women can comment, share stories, and be inspired by stories about them. It will be a clearinghouse of sorts that provides an opportunity for them to be introduced to a myriad of organizations that are doing work in gender equality, in particular spaces that they might be interested in and can tap into and get involved with. "It will be a place where we host an event calendar of a variety of organizations around the country and the work that they’re doing in gender equality to give young women concrete ways in which they can engage. The newsletter will curate the content from a variety of organizations and publications that would be of interest to young women who care about gender equality and playing a role and helping to equalize that. "The third piece will be a more tactical piece. In the first year, it’s our goal to create 10 campus charters. Each of those will work with student leaders to define a project of meaning to them and to help them with the tools to actually begin to make some concrete headway on whatever that particular issue is."

It was very powerful for me to see a woman stepping up and speaking up on behalf of things that really mattered to me.

Wendy Davis, founder of Deeds Not Words
You wrote a piece in Politico about being haunted by your decision to support the open carry of guns when you were running for governor. Why did your opinion shift on that issue and why do you think gun control and gun issues are important?
"I tried to walk a fine line that would take a charged conversation about open carry off of the table, and instead allow us to be talking about the things that I think would be more resonant with voters: support for health care, support for reproductive freedom. I said that I could support open carry if it meant that everyone could say no, meaning, if you were a private property owner, or a public property owner, a hospital, a school, no matter who you were, you could say no…[I knew] that no bill like that would ever come forward, and therefore a bill that came through without this condition would be one that I could veto… "But the fact of the matter is, I didn’t take an opportunity to talk about why open carry was a bad idea. When we are running for office in highly publicized campaigns, like a gubernatorial campaign, we have a megaphone in our hands, and we have an opportunity to talk about the issues that really matter, even if a lot of people disagree with them, and shape the public consciousness on those issues. That’s my regret — that I didn’t take the opportunity to draw that same line on open carry that I’d drawn on campus carry [in the state Senate] and on the gun show loophole [as a member of the Fort Worth City Council]. I didn’t play a role in advancing the conversation like I could have."

I think we have to own that responsibility [to vote]. These people don’t get elected by themselves.

Wendy Davis, founder of Deeds Not Words
You’ve said that you’re interested in running for office again. Is there any update on what office you might seek, or when you’re looking to re-enter politics in that way?
"No, and it may never happen. That road may not ever open for me again. It was a privilege to serve. I loved serving in public office and working on the things that I care so deeply about. But I’m learning while no longer in public office that we can still have an impact, we can still be very effective in fighting for the same things that matter to us. That’s the journey I’m on right now. If the path does not reopen for me to run for office, I am finding my way to continue to use my voice, and that’s what matters the most for me."

What would you say to women who are interested in giving back or serving in public office, but are on the fence or hesitant to run?
"I would tell them that running is one of the most important decisions that they could make, and that they are capable of more than they might dream in terms of weathering through what can be a difficult campaign storm. But the prize at the end of it, the goal of being at the table, and expressing your voice and your values, is worth all the hardship it takes to get there. "This is one of the resources we’ll have on Deeds Not Words, a connection to a number of organizations that exist specifically for the purpose of recruiting, training, and supporting young women who want to run for office. And I want to make sure that when we have a young woman who is thinking about doing that, who is leaning in that direction, that we do everything we can to provide her with the tools and resources she needs to make that decision, and to be supported once she does."
If you weren’t in politics…in an alternate universe, completely different career or job, what would you be?
"I would write the next great American novel." What do you think is the latest great American novel?
"Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I’ve been reading so much on the nonfiction side…" Or do you have a favorite novel or novelist that you would aspire to channel?
"Yes, there’s a beautiful book that I’ve read several times because I think it’s one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read — it’s called The History of Love…[by] Nicole Krauss. Beautiful, beautiful writer. If I could write a sentence like she can write, I would feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven." We write a lot about the importance of self-care. Are there specific things you do to unwind or help balance the stress of politics?
"For me it’s just escaping to my family. My daughters mean so very much to me, and being able to spend time with them, with my partner who I love very much, is just the greatest way to re-center and to get away from the bigger, broader problems of the world. I also try to be pretty religious about exercising, and the clarity that comes from just working up a sweat and clearing up your mind, getting rid of some of the stress." I’ve read that you also enjoy a little bit of HDTV from time to time. Is that still the case?
"You know, I actually have not watched that in I cannot tell you how long. I’ve been traveling so much that I just don’t watch that much television anymore. If I sit down in front of the TV, it’s usually one of those fun series, like House of Cards or something like that, those are one of my guilty escapes." If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
"My superpower would be to force every Republican candidate and office holder to trade places for one real day with a woman in poverty in this country and to see what her challenges are like."

More from US News

R29 Original Series