Anne Lewis : Texas Women Who Misbehave

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis speaks to a crowd of thousands at the Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas, July 1, 2013. Photo by Phillip Martin / The Frisky.

Deep in the heart of Texas:
Women who misbehave

While pro-life sentiment is used to cut funding for women’s health, sanctity of life has not affected the State’s number one status in executions.

By Anne Lewis | The Rag Blog | July 8, 2013

“They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.” — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976

AUSTIN, Texas — Around midnight on Tuesday, June 26, 2013, thousands of Texans took their Capitol. The crowd, predominantly young women, defied a group of sour and narrow legislators by yelling at them so loudly that they couldn’t vote for the bill that they planned to pass.

The “pro-life” bill is designed to shut down all but five of the abortion clinics in the state, forcing them to meet state requirements for “surgical ambulatory care.” It’s interesting that Milla Perry Jones, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s sister, serves as Vice President for Government Affairs for United Surgical Partners International, a major provider of surgical ambulatory care. Doctors, even those dispensing pills, would be required to have privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.

The law would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks — the time when, according to a disputed study, the fetus can feel pain. Or pleasure, as U.S. Congressman Michael Burgess (R-Texas), an OB/GYN, appears to believe. Burgess, when arguing before a House committee in June that abortion should be banned at 15 weeks, suggested that that’s when male fetuses start masturbating.

Rape and incest and the mental health of the mother were not exceptions — only the mother’s physical health and “serious” abnormalities of the fetus.

Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Texas Democratic Party, along with many local progressive and radical organizations — the Workers Defense Project, the International Socialist Organization, the United Students Against Sweatshops, TSEU women, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Rise Up Texas, Occupy Austin, and others — had come to the Capital that night.

The Capital vibrated with the yelling of the crowd. It was the largest, most energetic, and by far noisiest indoor protest I’ve ever seen.

The Texas legislature is dominated by right-wing fundamentalist Republicans who rose to power through gerrymandering, redistricting, and voter suppression in the midst of significant demographic change. Texas is majority non-white and Latino according to the 2010 census: 45.3% white, 11.8% African-American, 3.8% Asian, 37.6% Hispanic, and 3.5% other (including Native American).

The Republican attacks have a white supremacist edge. Right after the June 25th Supreme Court repeal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said that the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting plan should be immediately implemented along with Voter ID. Federal judges in Washington had blocked the redistricting plan, saying that it intentionally discriminated against minorities.

An on-going legislative attack on the public sector has placed Texas 49th among states in spending per pupil, 46th in students graduating from high school. Texas has the most people without health insurance in the U.S. and ranks 47th in expenditures for mental health. Texas ranks 49th in reproductive health, including 46th in teen birth rates and 4th from the bottom in sex education.

“Pro-life” demonstrator at Capitol. Photo by Anne Lewis / The Rag Blog.

While pro-life sentiment is used to cut funding for women’s health, sanctity of life has not affected the State’s number one status in executions. Since 1982 Texas has executed 500 prisoners, more than half of them coming during Rick Perry’s time as governor. 

The anti-abortion bill was filed by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) who made national news herself. When Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), a wire coat hanger attached to the podium, called for the exemption of victims of rape and incest from the anti-abortion bill that Laubenberg had filed, Laubenberg objected: “In the emergency room they have what’s called rape kits where a woman can get cleaned out.”

She instantly became the subject of national ridicule.

Laudenberg speaks for more than Christian fundamentalists in the Texas House. She is the Texas State Chair of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) — a behind-the-scenes organization that is anti-union, anti-choice, anti-environment, and anti-immigrant. ALEC is responsible for the “shoot first” legislation that in part caused the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The sad life of the Anti-Abortion Bill: SB5

I went to the Capitol on Sunday, June 23, to join the people trying to stall the vote in the Texas House. We stood in the hallway leading to the House Gallery waiting to greet the Representatives. A few “pro-life” people had also gathered with tape over their mouths, I suppose pretending to be fetuses.

One miserable looking man in a shiny blue shirt and black tie shouldered me aside. Then they began to hum “Amazing Grace,” written by a reformed slave trader, sung by the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, brought to life by Mahalia Jackson for use in both the mass Civil Rights movement and in opposition to the Vietnam War, and a source of inspiration on union picket lines. It was as if all that is good and holy had been twisted and perverted.

Demonstrators fill the Capitol stairs. Photo by Anne Lewis / The Rag Blog.

Finally inside the House Gallery I heard the articulate amendment by Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin). Supported by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Texas Medical Association, and the Texas Hospital Association, Howard wanted to strike language that might keep doctors and nurses from acting in the best interests of both mother and fetus.

Rep. Laubenberg got up to state her opposition, was asked simple questions about her bill by Lon Burnham (D-Ft Worth), and mumbled something about it gutting the bill. Burnham persisted with specifics. As a result, Laubenberg moved to table all subsequent proposed amendments to the bill without returning to the microphone. This included an amendment by Mary González (D-El Paso) who spoke of the disproportionate impact on women in her community who would have to travel 600 miles each way to the nearest abortion clinic in San Antonio.

We sat in the gallery, occasionally giving voice but quickly silenced by Planned Parenthood and Democratic Party organizers. A succession of amendments by House Democrats and procedural issues delayed voting on the bill into early Monday morning, giving the Senate filibuster a chance to succeed.

Wendy Davis during filibuster..

Like many, I returned to the Capitol Tuesday evening and became part of a long line trying to get into the Senate Gallery to observe Wendy Davis’ filibuster. We snaked in circles. I was thrilled to see my students and former students, young women whom I had not considered activists, in the crowd. Once more we were told to be quiet and follow the rules of decorum. And we did, for the most part, remain quiet and contained.

The “third strike” against the Wendy Davis filibuster took place at 10 p.m., filed by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) who claimed that the sonogram bill — which Davis was addressing — had nothing to do with abortion. I was by then in the Senate Gallery. Campbell stood down below us, the sharpness of her features complemented by a thoroughly unpleasant expression.

The Gallery erupted when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ruled in Campbell’s favor. We yelled “Shame” and “Let her speak.” I remember a man with a shoe in his hand and an older woman pointing down at the legislators and yelling at them. Both were removed along with nearly all the people who happened to be nearest the door. Every time the door opened we could hear the crowd outside. They yelled, “Let us in.” The troopers locked the door and the only way out was through the Senate Chambers.

“Let her Speak” June 25 2013 10 07 to 10 10 Texas Capitol from Anne Lewis on Vimeo.

On Wednesday, June 26, Gov. Perry called for a new special session to pass the anti-abortion bill. Just hours later, Perry spoke at the National Right to Life Convention in Dallas, saying, “Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn.”

He attacked Wendy Davis: “It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example: that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.” I wonder at his inconsistencies — the political opportunism of priorities that shift so quickly from pro-life to pro-death.

There’s an element in Perry’s and the other Republican legislators’ reactions to Wendy Davis that reminds me of the way white supremacists branded white Southerners who took up the banner of racial equality as “race traitors.” How could she, a white woman, betray him? But it wasn’t mainly white women who stood up to the majority in the Legislature.

During the session, Senfronia Thompson, Leticia Van de Putte, Dawnna Dukes, Mary Gonzales, Alma Allen, Judith Zaffirini, Yvonne Davis, and others proved themselves smarter than all of those right-wing men put together and far more competent to govern. I remember the image of this man with a wooden stick poking around on the Senate floor while Wendy Davis filibustered hour after hour — not allowed to eat, drink, sit down, or use the bathroom.

And it’s not just the Republican men, but also those infantilized right-wing women. Baby dolls that men protect and control, they are sanctimonious, hidden, and vicious when someone calls them out — very much Ulrich’s well-behaved pious matrons. It’s all about the white man’s party and its ability to rule. Those of us at the Capitol were there to stop them.

At 11:45 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25th, 15 minutes before the end of the session, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) — who had returned from her father’s funeral in order to be heard — stood to demand that her colleagues recognize her. It was not the first time she had defied those in power.

In response to the sonogram bill, she had said, in parody of Grover Norquist’s promise to shrink government to a size that could fit in a bathtub, “Texas is going to shrink government until it fits into a woman’s uterus.” On Tuesday night she asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”

That line — so solidly expressive of misuse of power and male supremacy — was the cue for the gallery. They yelled and chanted and took over the Chamber.

We could hear the Gallery through the locked door. The whole Capitol filled with a giant roar. We cheered, yelled, and chanted.

“Vote Stopped by Protesters” Texas Capitol June 25, 2013 11:50pm to June 26, 2013 12:01am from Anne Lewis on Vimeo.

I was reminded of those special times during the mass civil rights movement — and the movement that ended the war in Vietnam — moments when our relatively minor differences go away, when we act in one loud clear voice against a system of oppression, when we are willing to be obnoxious or even go to jail for our deep-felt beliefs. As Joe Begley from the eastern Kentucky coalfields put it: “Everyone should go to jail for a night or two.”

What a wonderful night of misbehavior it was!

[Anne Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas and a member of TSEU-CWA Local 6186 and NABET-CWA, is an independent filmmaker associated with Appalshop. She is co-director of Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, associate director of Harlan County, U.S.A, and the producer/director of Fast Food Women, To Save the Land and People, Morristown: in the air and sun, and a number of other social issue and cultural documentaries. Her website is Read more articles by and about Anne Lewis at The Rag Blog.]

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2 Responses to Anne Lewis : Texas Women Who Misbehave

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Thanks, Anne, for your first-hand reporting and your analysis. As to the right-wing takeover of the legislature through “gerrymandering, redistricting, and voter suppression” I would add deliberate lying, brainwashing through churches and schools (the latter limited by resistance from some teachers and some of the public), and confusing populist appeals. BTW Donna Campbell is one of the MD’s in the legislature. Her pinched face with its perpetual scowl was in all her TV campaign ads, too, and I guess I’m still capable of being amazed that someone like that can get elected. Hope I never have to go to the ER at a hospital where she’s the ER doc!

  2. Anonymous says:

    While I hope that Leslie finds all the caring doctors she needs without having to run into Doctor Campbell’s pinched face, she is of course the lucky one. The six month old babies that meet the abortionist, whether scowling or smiling, all meet a fate far worse than Leslie might. They are either dismembered or given a lethal injection. I am sure given a choice, they too would have chosen not to meet the good doctor abortionist in his/her office. Leslie has a choice in that matter, 24week old babies now do also. Those who bravely passed legislation this week spoke up and gave them a voice.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

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