It’s rare to achieve overnight global celebrity while wearing pink running shoes – and going nowhere. Senator Wendy Davis stood for almost 11 hours straight, talking without deviation – or even recourse to a loo – to block a Texas abortion bill that would have restricted the rights of women to govern their own bodies. At one point, she put on a back brace, bolstering her instant hero status. As she hobbled triumphantly home in the early hours, outsiders asked, just who is she?
Wendy Davis has always fought to be heard after a life made for the movies. Now 50, she was raised in Fort Worth by a single mother who worked in an ice cream shop to support four children. By 14, Davis was selling newspaper subscriptions and orange juice in a shopping centre food court. By 19, she, too, was a single mother and living on a trailer park with her daughter after a divorce.
But Davis was smart and, as Texan Republicans know to their cost, not one to quit. When a colleague handed her a brochure for a nearby community college, she saw an escape. She enrolled and later secured loans to transfer to university, where she finished top of her class. Nobody in her family had earned a degree. After marrying again and having a second child, Davis won a place at Harvard Law School, commuting to Boston for three years – and graduating with honours.
A career in law followed. Davis started as a lowly clerk before setting up her own practice, which specialised in political cases. She served for nine years on the Fort Worth City Council and helped create thousands of jobs in her county by spearheading economic development projects.
In 2008, Davis narrowly defeated a Republican rival to become one of Texas’ 31 senators, 12 of whom are Democrats. She won re-election in 2012, defying Republican lawmakers who had tried to push through electoral boundary changes that would have seen her defeated. Earlier that year, her office in Fort Worth was firebombed. It had been empty. The perpetrator was later identified as a homeless man with mental health problems.
While in office she has sponsored bills on cancer prevention, payday loans, the rights of sexual assault victims and transparency in government. And she knows the law surrounding the filibuster. In 2011, she attempted to talk down a state budget that took $5bn from public schools, forcing Rick Perry, the Governor, to hold a special session. She later won back much of the money. Perry called her a “show horse” after the stunt won Davis national notoriety, leading to speculation about a future run for higher office. Such talk reached a new level today.
Perry is still the boss in Texas after failing to win the Republican presidential nomination. He had been poised to sign the abortion bill, and may yet get a chance. He can bet Davis will be there, trainers at the ready.
Other jobs where length matters…
Wendy Davis’s heroic 11-hour filibuster was certainly something. But how does it compare with other jobs where one stands up and speaks for a long time? George Osborne spoke for 50 minutes about his spending review today. But his efforts are nothing compared with MP Henry Brougham, whose six-hour speech on law reform on 7 February1828 was the longest in Commons history.
Teaching is another profession used to the stand’n’talk. One English teacher told me: “On average, I’m up and about for a minimum of four hours a day in class. In true Nora Batty style, several colleagues have lumpy tights/varicose veins.”
Other endeavours can lead to hours of standing and talking – your street preachers, your tour guides, your 24-hour-news correspondents. None of those quite compares to Frenchman Lluis Colet, who spoke non-stop for 124 hours (five days) in 2009, rambling about Salvador Dali, Catalan culture and more to enter Guinness World Records for the longest non-stop speech in history. Beat that, Wendy.