Wendy Davis started Tuesday as just one of 10 members of the Democratic minority in the Texas state Senate. Hardly anybody outside the state knew anything about her. By the time midnight struck, however, Davis was known across the country — reviled by the right, and hailed as a heroine by abortion rights supporters for the one-woman filibuster she used to help derail what would have been one of the toughest collections of abortion restrictions in the nation.
Davis took the floor at 11:18 a.m., after tweeting the day before: "The leadership may not want to listen to TX women, but they will have to listen to me. I intend to filibuster this bill." And that's just what she did, talking for roughly 11 hours straight before being shut down for deviating from the state's filibuster rules — but not before delaying a vote so long that the bill's supporters couldn't get it officially approved before the legislative session ended at midnight.
The feat thrust Davis into the spotlight, but it was not the first time she has fought what appeared to be overwhelming odds. Here are five elements in her personal history that might have helped prepare her for this showdown:
1. She overcame hardships to become the first in her family to go to college
Davis, 50, has come a long way in the last three decades. She was raised by a single mother. At 19, she was a divorced mom, working two jobs, living in a trailer park, and raising her daughter on her own. Davis got into a two-year paralegal program, became the first in her family to go to college (graduating from Texas Christian University), then went on to graduate with honors from Harvard law school. Later she clerked for a federal judge and ran a title company before entering politics.
She won a seat on the Fort Worth city council in 1999 and unseated a GOP incumbent to get into the state Senate in 2008. "She's a total fighter," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and daughter of the late former Texas governor Ann Richards, tells USA Today. "And the thing about Senator Davis, she says she's going to do something, she gets it done."
2. This wasn't her first filibuster
In 2011, Davis blocked a conservative plan that would have cut education spending by nearly $4 billion. She did it by ranting against the proposal for an hour, pushing it beyond a midnight deadline and forcing the legislature to hold a special session.
The move earned her some highly placed enemies. Gov. Rick Perry suggested she was being a "show horse." Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, predicted voters would send her packing once they realized "the folly in her efforts." It didn't turn out that way. Davis was re-elected the next year, although she did get booted from the Education Committee.
3. Davis has already made some people very happy
Davis was hailed as a "feminist superhero" by activists in her state long before this week, says Joan Walsh at Salon. In 2012, she protested plans to cut Medicaid funding to agencies with links to abortion providers. During her filibuster speech, Brandy Zadrozny notes at The Daily Beast, Davis said that Planned Parenthood was once her only source of health care — her "medical home."
In 2011, Zadrozny says, Davis authored a bill requiring law-enforcement agencies to account for a backlog of untested rape kits. She followed up by urging members of Congress to follow her example at the federal level, to "do the right thing for thousands of victims of these horrific crimes, who are still waiting for justice to be served and for their attackers to be put behind bars."
4. Davis has already made some people very, very mad
Davis may be a heroine to some, but she is not universally liked. Last year, during her re-election campaign, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at her office. She was not there when the firebomb hit, and nobody was hurt.
She was inundated with messages of support and concern. She responded by saying she wouldn't be intimidated. "I will continue to stand very strong for the things that I've been working on and believe in and I know our community believes in," she said. "Public education, job creation, and women's health care."
5. Her filibuster was harder than it looked
Texans take their filibusters seriously. If you want to tie up the state Senate with a non-stop talk-fest, you can't have any help, you can't take any breaks, and you can't deviate from the topic at hand. "There's a three strikes, you're out precedent in the Senate that allows senators two warnings about staying germane to the bill topic," Texas Tribune reporter Becca Aaronson says.
Davis got her first strike for mentioning Planned Parenthood's budget, which was deemed irrelevant to the bill. She got her second strike when a colleague helped her adjust a back brace. Her third strike came when she mentioned a 2011 sonogram law that Texas passed, which Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was presiding over the session, said was not germane to the debate. And the filibuster was over.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Rise of the machines
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
- The uncomfortable truth in The Giving Tree
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- It's time to kill school picture day
- Uncle Sam wants you to stay away from these countries
- 10 things you need to know today: October 19, 2014
Subscribe to the Week