Wendy Davis: Single mother from trailer park who has become heroine of pro-choice movement

While other lawmakers politick, Davis has earned a reputation for sticking to her principles

President Barack Obama’s path to the White House began with a speech: his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, which lasted approximately 16 minutes and 20 seconds, not counting the applause.

If Texas senator Wendy Davis were heading in the same direction, as some of her supporters now seem to believe, she too would have to trace her route back to a speech, delivered on Tuesday. Hers, however, lasted 11 hours.

More like 12, if you count the applause, and the cries of “Let her speak!” from the public gallery, and the rest of the kerfuffle that greeted the end of the 50-year-old Democrat’s Herculean filibuster on the floor of the Texas senate. Davis had been determined to talk until the midnight deadline for a vote on tough new anti-abortion legislation, thus disrupting the proceedings and derailing the Bill. And though the Republican lieutenant governor sought to end Davis’s attempts on a technicality, the ensuing pandemonium prevented a satisfactory vote after all.

As she spoke, Davis’s fame spread across the US in real time. Pro-choice protesters gathered at the capitol in Austin. The viewers on a live YouTube feed from the chamber climbed towards 150,000. Internet wags everywhere devised witty memes about their new idol’s pink Mizuno Wave trainers. A Twitter hashtag, #standwithwendy, began trending. Conservative opponents weighed in with #sitdownwendy, which was instantly commandeered by supporters. When she finally did sit down, Davis tweeted her 81,000 followers with the message: “Thanks to the powerful voices of thousands of Texans, #SB5 is dead. An incredible victory for Texas women and those who love them.”

Senate Bill Five (#SB5) – the Bill that Davis so spectacularly killed – would have closed 37 of the 42 abortion clinics in Texas, and placed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Similar 20-week bans have already been passed in 12 US states. Courts may have blocked the legislation in Arizona, Georgia and Idaho, but Arkansas recently banned most abortions after 12 weeks, while North Dakota has reduced the requisite term to just six – an effective total ban.

Davis has likely done little more than slow the passage of the Texas plan. She remains in the minority in the state senate, which contains 12 Democrats to 19 Republicans. A day after her attention-grabbing display, the Republican governor, Rick Perry, called a new, 30-day special session beginning on Monday, to push through the controversial legislation. This week, Davis had to stay on her feet for 11 hours to kill the Bill, because it had been brought to the floor so close to the end of the session. The plan’s supporters can now present it with time to spare; the necessary weeks-long filibuster would be physically impossible for any senator, even one as devoted as Davis.

When Perry took to the stage at the National Right to Life convention on Thursday, he suggested that Davis’s experiences ought to have put her on the other side of the abortion debate. “She was the daughter of a single woman. She was a teenage mother herself,” he said. “She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate. It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example. That every life must be given a chance to realise its own potential. Every life matters.”

Davis, however, learned different lessons from her own life. On Mother’s Day, campaigning in favour of equal pay for Texas women, she wrote on her Facebook page: “My inspiration comes from my mother, who often did without so that she could support me and my three siblings. She taught me to fight for what you believe in, to never give up, and to make sacrifices if it meant a better future for the ones you love... I hope to inspire my own daughters and empower future generations of Texas women to never back down.”

Davis was born on 16 May 1963, in Rhode Island. Her family moved to the Fort Worth suburbs when she was 11; her parents divorced, and her mother scraped a living in an ice-cream store to support the four children. As a young teenager, Wendy sold subscriptions for a local newspaper and worked on an orange juice stand at the local mall. She was married at 18, gave birth to her daughter Amber, divorced at 19, and found herself living – like so many other poor, young, American mothers – in a trailer park. Three decades later, as she fought cuts to the state’s education budget, she would say: “An education is the only way a poor kid stops being a poor kid.”

And so, while coping with the realities of motherhood, Davis also won a place at Texas Christian University. In the mornings, she worked as a receptionist at a paediatrician’s clinic; in the evenings, she worked as a waitress at a café, both of which supplemented an academic scholarship and a student loan. She graduated at the top of her class and went on to Harvard Law School, before finally returning to Fort Worth as a lawyer in 1993. Meanwhile, she married again and had another daughter, Dru, now in her mid twenties. Davis was divorced for the second time in 2003.

Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic strategist and founder of the Lone Star Project, a political research outfit, said he spotted Davis’s potential after she was elected to the city council in Fort Worth in 1999, and recruited her for her first senate race. “Wendy is absolutely sincere,” Angle says. “She has a real ability to connect with people. It’s not mandatory in politicians, but when they have that quality, it makes them special. She inspires people. She also has a tough streak. Other politicians tend to say, ‘There’s too much political risk in that, what if I lose?’ Wendy says, ‘What if we win?’”

In November 2008, that attitude paid off when Davis became the only Democrat to beat a GOP incumbent in the state’s senate elections – the first to do so, in fact, for 20 years. Surviving as a Democrat lawmaker anywhere in Texas takes gumption, and Davis did so in a district where few believed her party could win. In 2011, Republicans tried to redraw Davis’s district along more conservative lines, but were told by a federal court to drop the plans. In 2012, Perry campaigned personally to help unseat her, but to no avail.

The governor’s dislike of Davis is long-standing. Davis is an accomplished horsewoman, and this week’s filibuster was not – as they say in Texas – her first rodeo. Two years ago, in June 2011, she disrupted another legislative session in similar fashion, filibustering a proposed $4bn cut to the state’s school budget. Perry, at the time an ill-fated presidential candidate, was forced to call a further special session to push through the plan. He described Davis, disdainfully, as a “show horse”.

In response to the governor’s personal comments at her expense this week, Davis wrote: “I am saddened to learn that Governor Perry made the shameful decision today to personally attack me and my family. The governor’s comments are without dignity and tarnish the high office that he holds. Texans deserve better than a governor who thinks the government should intrude on a family’s most personal decisions. And Texans deserve better than a governor who tells women – including myself – how they should live their lives.”

While other lawmakers politick, Davis has earned a reputation for acting on her instincts and sticking to her principles. “I’ve never worried about payback,” she has said. “People are hungry for leadership that’s not afraid of political consequence.”

Now, thanks to her fearlessness, political consequence is exactly what the Fort Worth senator has achieved. Earlier this year, in recognition of her support for the Veterans’ Assistance Fund, a military veteran named David Marcou was reportedly the first person to print a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Wendy Davis for President 2020”. He won’t be the last. Says Matt Angle: “I don’t know that anybody could put a limit on Wendy’s potential.”

A life in brief

Born: Wendy Russell Davis, 16 May 1963, West Warwick, Rhode Island, US.

Family: Divorced Frank Underwood in 1984. Divorced Jeffry Davis in 2003. Has one child from each marriage.

Education: Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School. Davis was the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Career: Practising lawyer. Member of Fort Worth City Council from 1999 to 2007. Won a seat in the Texas senate in 2008. Launched a filibuster in 2011 against a budget Bill that cut $4bn from public education. On the Senate Committees for Economic Development and Transportation.

She says: “It was a very encouraging sign that people appreciate when you take a tough stand.”

They say: “Whatever the outcome, Wendy Davis’s efforts entered her into the pantheon of American heroes.” Ricky Gervais

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