'Use Your Voice'

What it was like to be at the Texas Capitol during Wendy Davis's filibuster last week
Eric Gay/AP Images

About 12 minutes before midnight last Tuesday, senator Leticia Van de Putte stood on the floor of the Texas Senate, a microphone in her hand. Her colleague Wendy Davis had been filibustering an omnibus anti-abortion bill for most of the day. The bill would have shut down 37 of the 42 abortion clinics in the state, severely restricted the administration of RU-486 (the abortion pill) in rural areas, and banned abortions after 20 weeks, among other things. All of these measures failed to pass in the regular legislative session. The Texas Republicans had introduced the bill during a special 30-day legislative session that has laxer rules than the regular one. Tuesday was day 30 of the special session, and if the bill did not pass the Senate before midnight it would die and never be law. The Texas GOP was probably assuming it would sail through with little fanfare.

What supporters of the bill did not count on was the work of a team of activists, the strategy of the Democrats in the Texas House, the physical and mental fortitude of the filibustering Senator Wendy Davis, and the power of thousands of voices raised together.

Davis' filibuster had fallen apart around 10:30 pm as the Republicans in the Senate challenged it with parliamentary procedure and questions about whether Davis had stayed on topic.

Van de Putte had only returned to Austin hours before, coming directly from her father's funeral in San Antonio. With almost no time to grieve, Van de Putte arrived at the capitol, she told me, "so drained, so exhausted...'I have nothing left. I have nothing emotionally.'" It was another woman--the wife of Senator Royce West, Carol West--who encouraged Van de Putte to join the parliamentary fight that was taking place on the floor of the Senate following the end of Davis' filibuster. Van de Putte said that Carol told her, "You're here but you're not here. You need to speak up. You've got to engage. Use your voice." The she said the words the got Van de Putte going, "I know your Dad. He was so proud of you. Honor his memory by fighting."

The minutes were ticking away and as midnight approached, the president of the Senate tried to move to a vote on the bill. Van de Putte realized this and "I kept trying, thinking, 'I'm going to move to adjourn,'" she told me. "I'm going to use every parliamentary trick I knew." But you can't argue parliamentary procedure if you aren't recognized by the president of the Senate and allowed to speak. "I would not get recognized," she said. "I was jumping up and down. Dan Patrick [a Republican Senator] in front of me got recognized. I was screaming, 'Did you not hear me? Did you not hear me and refuse to recognize me?'"

When Van de Putte finally got her chance right around 11:48 pm, these words just came out of her mouth, unplanned: "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?"

The crowd in the gallery immediately started yelling and didn't stop. The senators could not hear each other and so they couldn't take a vote. When the people outside the gallery figured out what was happening, they started yelling, too, and it spread out into the Texas capitol rotunda.

So, two minutes after Van de Putte's statement, I found myself standing near the center of that rotunda. My pink uterus necklace was around my neck and I was wearing an orange shirt. (We had chosen that color months before because we thought it would stick out in a crowd.) Thousands of other Texans in orange clothing surrounded me and filled up the three floors above where I was standing. They crowded into overflow rooms in the capitol basement and packed into the wide hallway that led to the gallery of the Texas Senate chamber. And inside the Senate gallery, hundreds of abortion rights supporters were up out of their seats. And I, like everyone else in all of these parts of the capitol, was screaming my face off.

For just over ten minutes, we stood as a collective one. American society tells women that they're supposed to be calm. When women raise their voices or shout about the ways they are hurt by the system, they are painted as dramatic, hysterical, or irrational. Yet, here we were, thousands of us, literally yelling together in an effort to destroy a bill we saw as deeply sexist.

For many of us who were there, the yelling was a cathartic release against the stringent, often unfair rules that we had faced over the previous six days. Before the House voted on the bill, they held a committee hearing where citizens could show up to testify, each person allotted three minutes. But after 8 hours and with over 200 people left to testify, the Republican committee chair cut off testimony. Then on Sunday, while people were sitting in the gallery of the House watching the debate and the eventual vote on the bill, they were told by officials that they could not make noise and could not even shake their hands (the American Sign Language sign for applause). Finally, on Tuesday, as Republicans used questionable parliamentary procedures to end Davis' filibuster, the crowd in the gallery responded loudly and angrily. The president of the Senate, at the behest of a Republican senator, reminded those in the attendance that he had the power to arrest them and hold them for up to 48 hours if they did not follow the rules of decorum.

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Jessica Luther is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a PhD candidate in the History department at University of Texas. She writes about sports and culture at Power Forward.

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