Wendy Davis

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Filibuster queen Wendy Davis on how young women can make the most political impact

Advice from the former senator who famously held her ground for 11 hours for abortion rights.


Samantha Grasso


Posted on Nov 22, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 10:24 am CDT

Women, people of color, transgender people—basically anyone who wasn’t an old, straight cis white guy—were on fire this November in elections across the country. In New Jersey and Virginia, more Democratic women ran in 2017 legislative races than in previous years, and many “firsts” were voted into office—from the first openly trans woman of color to ever be elected in the country to the first female mayor of New Orleans, who also happens to be Black. It was a pro-Democrat, anti-Trump trend that manifested across many local elections.

Now, with filing deadlines for 2018 state elections approaching, the movements behind this slow but meaningful change cannot afford to lose momentum. It will take dedication, persistence, and solidarity. However, even if you want to get involved but don’t want to face the pressures of running locally, there are ways you can affect change without working in politics yourself.

In 2015, former Texas state senator and 2014 Texas gubernatorial Democratic candidate Wendy Davis launched Deeds Not Works, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to helping young women participate in civic engagement. Under the organization, high school and college students have testified to Texas committee hearings and helped develop and get legislation passed.

Davis has faced major political upsets herself—among them watching restrictive anti-abortion bill SB5 pass after she filibustered for 11 hours straight in 2013, and losing the race for Texas governor a year later—and has made it clear she will not be running in 2018. No failure, however, has stopped her from holding the torch to lead millennial and Gen-Z women toward “moving the needle,” as she so enthusiastically puts it.

In a chat with the Daily Dot following her appearance at the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Davis spoke about what she’s learned from Hillary Clinton‘s presidential campaign and her own for governor, weighing politics and activism, and what it takes to set up younger generations for success and failure.

Daily Dot: After the 2014 gubernatorial election, did you ever have your own “Hillary in the woods” moment, where you had women coming up to you for photos and responding in that kind of manner?

Wendy Davis: The thing after my election that I was surprised by was, when you lose, you feel like almost immediately the story of who you are, and what you were fighting for, is quickly extinguished. But it turns out that not it at all. And I was really honored by that—young women still wanted to meet and ask advice.

Really, it’s why I started Deeds Not Words. There is a hunger for guidance—the bit of wisdom learned along the way when you get to be my age, and you’ve been in public service as long as I have been. And I felt that that was a real privilege, to be sitting at a place that young women looked to, and it really made me want to honor that.

Creating Deeds Not Words was in response to a question that I was getting asked all the time: “What do we do? What do we do?” And this was coming from young women who have a great desire to make an impact, but not quite sure how to turn their passion into some realistic and effective action.

DD: I see Deeds Not Words is sounding off on a myriad of issues affecting women, in both events and on social media. 

WD: Our forte, our strength, really lies in equality—and everything that that entails. And of course that means that when we’re talking about women’s safety from sexual assaults and the appropriate response where assault occurs, we’re going to have a very strong presence in that space, just like we do with reproductive justice, just like we do with economic opportunities and everything that fits underneath that umbrella.

And then we see a very connective and supportive role for immigration fights because we understand that, for women, this can have a disproportionately negative impact. Of course, it impacts the entire immigrant community when you have aggressively hostile laws that are being passed like SB 4 [Texas’ anti-sanctuary city bill], but women tend to bear the brunt of these. We’re the ones that are most threatened by the idea of, and the realities of, being separated from families, children that they have here in the U.S. They’re the ones that are usually the most impacted by the fear to come forward and report crime, and when immigration [enforcement] becomes so aggressive, they’re afraid to come forward if they’ve been victimized.

So, we saw a real logical connection between that fight and our work as well, and have really tried to play an active part in that and be a voice in that too.

DD: How have you watched Deeds Not Words evolve as far as political strategies go?

WD: We just wrapped up our legislative session, and as part of the session, we did work on four different majority/minority high school campuses, and also five different college campuses. And what that entailed was doing advocacy training around issues of sex trafficking and sexual assault. And when I say that, I mean not just piloting in, doing some training, and piloting back out—we were actively engaged with our students throughout the legislative session, making sure that at every point, their voices needed to be added to the conversation.

We had a number of girls who came and testified at committee hearings at a myriad of bills. They were working a total of 10 different bills in the legislative session and seven of those passed, and while I can’t say that our advocates can take full credit for those, they certainly played an important role in making it happen.

In particular, there is one that they should claim full credit for: It is the fact that we now in Texas have a high school curriculum for sex trafficking—a prevention program that educates young women about sex trafficking, how to avoid getting sucked into it themselves, how to be an active bystander. That was the idea of our students written into a bill by Sen. Judith Zaffirini. They were the champions of that bill, all the way through the session. They can lay claim to it, it was 100 percent their doing, which is really amazing.

And what we’re doing now in the interim, we’re thinking about how to effectively plan for the next legislative session. We have aligned with a Black women-led organization called the Afiya Center, and the Afiya Center started out as an organization that was helping the community who were impacted by HIV and AIDS, but they have broadened their focus and really centered their work on maternal mortality, because it is such a dire problem here in Texas. And we are beginning the conversation with them about how to create an advocacy training and legislative program around that issue, and to make sure, particularly in our majority-Black high schools, majority-Black college campuses, that we’re working together to train young women to educate them on the issue, understand the connection between reproductive rights and the outcome of maternal mortality, and to enlist them in the 2019 session around some pieces of legislation that we hope will have an impact on that.

DD: Do you feel like this efficacy and nonprofit work has been more effective than being in office?

WD: I was just having this conversation with myself this morning, because I get to this place of feeling like maybe I should run again, run statewide. And then I think, you know, I could spend the next year plus of my life dedicating my energy to that. I know how hard that is having done it before, or I could keep dedicating my energy in a way that I am.

And honestly, I think the impact we can have in lifting up the voices of the next generation and creating the multiplier effect of adding the importance of their voices to legislative outcomes, that could perhaps be more impactful.

So I certainly say that I feel that what we’re doing is worthwhile and that it is having an impact. I am one of those people who gets terribly impatient for wanting things to happen very quickly, and I have to remind herself to take a deep breath and [take] one step at a time. But, it’s slow, important, infrastructure-building work. It’s building the next generation of people who are going to be civilly engaged enough to actually turn the state blue.

DD: How did you participate in Clinton’s campaign for president? How did that loss impact you?

WD: I was on the campaign trail for Hillary almost 100 percent of the time. I was all in. And honestly, in the last few months of her campaign, I was giving as much energy and effort to that as I had given to my own gubernatorial campaign. I desperately believed in her, desperately wanted her to win, was deeply devastated when she lost—moreso than when I lost. I wasn’t supposed to win, right? She was supposed to win. And that’s a very different feeling when you finish a race like that.

Here’s the thing I fear, here’s the thing I fear from my loss and from Hillary’s loss: I saw this on her race, and I saw it on mine. That a group of young women got involved that had never been involved in an election before. They were so, so very passionate about their candidate, so they understood what was at stake. For the first time in their lives, they were giving themselves up to this really hard, big thing, and then it didn’t—they didn’t succeed, or the candidate didn’t succeed. And I worry sometimes that when we ask young people to get involved in something like that, some big, hard thing, and it’s not successful, that it will knock the wind out of their sails and cause them to decide not to try that again.

So, again, with Deeds Not Words, I was very purposeful about the issues that we chose going into that first advocacy training for our first legislative session. I was actively looking for issues that weren’t as partisan-charged and had a better chance of meeting with success, because I want young people to feel the success of their energy, and their effort, and their voice. You know, once you get the taste of that, it can weather you through a lot of failures along the way. But sometimes I think we ask our young people to do such big, hard things. I don’t want to scare them away, because Texas can be a daunting state, and trying to do something nationally can be daunting, so we need to have some wins along the way.

DD: How do you feel about needing to make those kinds of concessions in order to better the chances of seeing success and not completely failing? For example, creating legislation addressing “reproductive health” over “abortion access”?

WD: We don’t shy away from those issues. They are intensely important. But we try to have a good, healthy mix of things. Going into the next legislative session, with maternal health as kind of the big umbrella issue that we’ll be focusing on, there are some very controversial reproductive health issues under that umbrella. There are some less controversial sort of health care protocols to be implemented that could impact that, and so I saw that actually as kind of a good mix of things. You know, some things that we’ll hopefully succeed on, some things we’ll likely fail on, but all of which are important in terms of fighting for them.

DD: We might be making progress in certain non-partisan areas, but as far as making moves to progress more left-leaning issues like abortion and immigration go, what is your advice to the people who are feeling worn or “Trump-fatigued?”

WD: Just don’t give up. They’re hoping to wear us down. And that’s what happens after a while—people get tired of fighting and they shrink back into the shadows, and then all of these things happen, and no one even knows they happened, and so no one’s being held accountable for doing them. That’s why I’m so optimistic of where we find ourselves as a country right now. People are woke, and they are paying attention to everything that’s happening. I got a little bit worried last week when—we’re on round three of repealing the Affordable Care Act and congressional offices were saying, “Wow, in the other two rounds we were getting thousands of phone calls and this time we’re not.” And so I and a lot of other organizations were really issuing a call to action and letting people know we just cannot get weary of these sights.

We just have to restore ourselves, make sure that we’re doing appropriate self-care, whether that’s laying in bed all day Saturday watching movies, you know, going for a run a couple times a week. Just whatever it is, it’s important.

DD: What advice would you give the people creating their own grassroots efforts like those across Facebook?

WD: I applaud it. I’m in awe of it. It’s amazing to me how many people are doing that, and how many people are engaging around those grassroots efforts.

I had a glass of wine with a couple of young women before a Tarrant County, [Texas,] Democratic women’s event, and they just wanted to meet with me and talk about “What can we do in Denton?” And they were already doing some great things. They were very organized, they have great digital communication with larger groups, they show up at county commissioner hearings and other local elected official gatherings, and they speak their truth. And I told them, that is doing something. And please don’t feel like you have to do some grand thing to be moving the needle. Every action you take moves the needle. Every single one. And I hope people feel that. That we all have a role to play, and as long as we are playing our part, we’re going to eventually see the tide shift. It’s all important.


DD: What fundraising or training resources are available to women who aren’t “career politicians,” who are just setting out into politics in their twenties and joining this movement of women running for office for the first time?

WD: I didn’t start [running for office] until I was 33…When I was running at 33 years old, what everyone said was, “Oh my God, you’re too young, you don’t have any experience. What are you doing running for office?” And I love that we’re moving that needle, that we are thinking that we can run when we’re younger and that 33, “Oh, that’s kind of old to be running for the first time.” I just, I love it! But believe me, it’s never too late.

Annie’s List [fashioned off the nation-wide organization Emily’s List] is the greatest resource imaginable and it’s here in Texas. Emerge America is fantastic and they’re in 23 states right now, and Texas is on the horizon for them. And then there’s She Should Run.

DD: You said you weren’t sure about running for public office again—is there an office you’re considering running for in 2018?

WD: The logical thing for me to do would be to run for governor again. I’ve done that. I’ve built a huge donor base, I’ve built a huge network of volunteers and voters, and it’s something to build from. So the question I roll around in my mind is, “Do I have a responsibility to all that infrastructure we built? Who else is gonna run? Please, will someone step up and run,” So, I don’t know. Just, I don’t know.

[Note: When reached for a follow-up comment, a representative for Davis shared a San Antonio Express-News interview from Nov. 14 in which Davis said it would take “a lobotomy” for her to consider running for Texas governor again. While she didn’t rule out running for office in the future, David said she’s “not ready to do it for 2018.”]


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*First Published: Nov 22, 2017, 6:30 am CST