In June 2013, Wendy Davis took an incredible stand. The lawyer, Democrat, and Texas state senator talked for more than 12 hours—without stopping—to block legislation that would have closed all but a handful of Texas’s abortion and women’s health clinics. Republicans in the room literally yelled at her to stop. Countless people around the country, including ones in the White House, cheered her on. For hours, I could not tear my eyes away from social media or the TV. I wanted so badly for her to win, and when she did late that night, I asked myself: How can I be more like her?
In the years since, Wendy—she says it’s OK to call her Wendy—campaigned to become governor of Texas (though she did not win), wrote a memoir, and has continuously lobbied for gender equality and reproductive rights. This spring, she launched Deeds Not Words, an online platform where young women can connect with people and groups that are organizing around the same political and social issues they care about. I talked to her in April about Deeds Not Words, her advice for activists and organizers, and how she faces fear.
LENA SINGER: I am very excited to be talking to you today, Ms. Davis. Thank you for your time.
WENDY DAVIS: Of course. Call me Wendy, please.
To start, I wanted to ask you about how Deeds Not Words came to be.
I have met so many passionate, intelligent, thoughtful young women who really want to get involved, but they don’t really know how to connect their passions to concrete action. They often ask me for advice on what they should do. This organization was born out of that idea: Helping them find a place where they can receive advice on what to do and connections on how to do it.
Can you describe some of the tools that someone might find at Deeds Not Words, if they were interested in organizing around an issue that is important to them?
They’ll find links to organizations based on issues that they care about, and ways that those organizations seek to involve them in the work that they’re doing. So in some sense, it’s a clearinghouse that helps connect organizations that are doing a myriad of work in the gender equality arena to young women who are hoping to find ways to get involved. The website itself will provide a place where young women can share stories with each other and be inspired by and receive ideas from each other about ways they can connect. We’ll have a calendar that will list different events going on around the country. We’ll also be doing a weekly newsletter, and in the newsletter we’re going to be curating content from a variety of sources that will provide interesting, illuminating pieces that help young women be inspired, and hopefully get ideas about ways they can act.
If I were a teenager in Illinois, for example, who was trying to organize around reproductive rights, could I go to the site and connect with organizations in my area?
Eventually we would like it to be that detailed in terms of plugging in your address and saying, “What can I do here?” For the shorter term, the events calendar will list things that are going on around the country—hopefully something close to where you are. But, for example, if you were interested in reproductive rights, we’ll have a way that you can look at a variety of organizations that are working in the reproductive rights arena, and see what they’re doing, as well as ways that you can assist in what they’re doing.
When someone doesn’t have control over their circumstances, like where they live or go to school, they can feel really isolated and alone in their beliefs. Do you have advice on standing up for what you believe in when you feel like no one is on your side?
Being a teenager is hard, and it’s especially hard to be a teenager who is standing up and speaking out about something that other people might not agree with. I hope that [Deeds Not Words] is going to provide a safe space for young women—that’s what I want it to feel like. Somewhere they can feel like they aren’t alone, and that there are other young women just like them who are standing up and supporting the very same ideals that they are. While they might feel in the minority or alone within their own school or other peer groups, hopefully this site will provide them a place where they’ll feel part of a community.
Were you involved in politics or activism when you were a teenager?
Not at all. In fact, I’m so inspired when I see young women who are already present to what’s going on in this country as it relates to gender equality. When I was a young woman—middle school, high school age—I was in my own little insular world. I didn’t really realize what was going on in the bigger world around me. In some respects, I think social media has played a tremendously powerful and important role in helping young women gain an awareness that just didn’t seem to be the case when I was young. I didn’t really learn to step up and use my voice until law school. I began working at a legal services center. I was helping people with HIV/AIDS back in the early ’90s, when it was a fairly new disease. Not a lot was understood about it, and there was an incredible amount of discrimination against people who experienced it. That taught me the power of speaking up and out for people who were experiencing something that I was not—the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It was a life lesson about how important it is to do that, and how very fulfilling it can be. I hope—to go back to Deeds Not Words—to provide some examples and inspiration like that, where young women can get ideas about powerful and important ways that other people are tapping in, so that they might be able to use their energy in the same proactive way.
In 2013, you took such a public stand for what you believed in, and it seemed like it was a really threatening situation. How can someone face their fears when they’re met with that kind of resistance—particularly when it’s right in front of their faces, rather than what they might experience online?
I think that’s the greatest kind of fear: The fear that’s present right in front of us, and from people that we know. It’s very different than the anonymous kind of harassment that we might experience online. What I try to do in that situation is really guided by this wonderful quote that I often use, that [First Lady] Lady Bird Johnson once said. She was asked how she managed to step up and be a public figure when she was extraordinarily shy. And she said that sometimes you have to “become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid.” A couple of years ago, I wrote a memoir and I titled it Forgetting to Be Afraid. I think the lesson learned there is that when we are fighting for something that is bigger than we are, and that we care very, very much about, it’s much easier to put fear about ourselves aside in favor of that larger value that we’re fighting for. And I hope that young women who are standing up and speaking out about an issue that may not be entirely popular with their peer group will feel the courage that comes from knowing that they’re fighting for something that’s bigger than them, bigger than their friends on that particular day, and that they are a ripple that’s creating a larger wave and that’s going to join together with the other ripples out there to create a real change.
Aside from Lady Bird Johnson, are there any other activists or political leaders who inspire you similarly?
Yes. I’m working as a surrogate in Hillary Clinton’s campaign because I was inspired by her when I was a young woman in my late 20s. I watched her fight for women’s equality, and for universal healthcare. What I saw was that she was treated with a particular level of scorn because she was a woman, because many people perceived her as stepping outside her role of First Lady, and not staying in the appropriate lane. What I admired about her was that, in the face of all of that criticism—and probably she had some moments of feeling fear—she pushed through it to work on things that were bigger than her, and that she cared very deeply about.
As a young woman watching that, it gave me the courage to feel that I could do it, too. And quite honestly, the day that I heard her as Secretary of State, in a hearing for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defend women’s reproductive freedom, and why that was so important, and to be completely courageous about it, and to not back down, that gave me the courage to stand on the [Texas State] Senate floor and fight for reproductive freedom as well.
When we’re speaking out—while we may not immediately make the impact that we want to see—others are watching us, and they’re inspired by us. The same is true whether we are in middle school or high school, or whether we’re a state senator or secretary of state. Others are inspired by our courage, and I hope that young women who feel like change isn’t coming quickly enough, or who are frustrated that they’re working on something that hasn’t happened yet, will see that even in the moment of pushing for something that matters to them, they are creating a change. They are inspiring other people. ♦