If you’ve never seen a pack of pompous state legislators fall into a panic, you’ve missed a scene of truly uproarious low comedy. Here’s the story of one frenzied scene that recently played out in what I consider America’s all-star theater of political farce: The Texas legislature.
On the night of June 25th, in the ornate senate chamber, State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) was approaching the eleventh hour of her now-famous filibuster. She literally stood from 11:18 in the morning to 10:04 pm in a determined effort to stop Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and a horde of other extremist right-wingers who were about to reach down from their high perch of legislative power to slap Texas women.
Their means of assault was a draconian bill to strip every female in the Lone Star State of her inherent right to control her own body, and it also slammed the door of basic health care and family planning in the faces of thousands of lower-income women. Davis’ extraordinary action was necessary because the GOP had rigged the rules to shut women and their supporters out of the normal legislative process. The Republican majority was in such a fevered, macho heat to impose heavy-handed government control on 51 percent of Texans that the leaders resorted to brute force to get their way.
But Sen. Davis stood in their way in these last hours of this special, anti-woman legislative session. She had to be sat down soon–and scowling Repubs were on full watch for any excuse to cut her off. A Texas filibuster is no stroll in the park: You have to stand for the duration (you cannot even lean on your desk), you must speak continuously (no colleague can spell you), you can’t even pause for a pee, and you must stay on topic. The last is a very subjective standard, and it’s judged by the presiding officer–in this case, Dewhurst. In a hoked up claim that she had wandered, the man with the gavel arbitrarily shut her down at 10:04 pm.
That was not the end of the fight, however, for Davis did not stand alone. Ten other Democratic stalwarts were on the floor with her and immediately began making time-consuming points of order as the midnight adjournment time drew ever closer. But most significantly, the uninvited public had shown up to lend support–some 1,500 Texas women (and men, but the crowd was overwhelmingly female, including every age, color, class, and political party) had heard on the news or through the Twitterverse about “Wendy’s Stand,” and they had rushed spontaneously to the capitol, many driving a couple hundred miles or more to stand with her.
By late afternoon the citizenry packed the senate gallery. That’s when legislators began to squirm, for they now had to make their power plays in front of all the Jane Doe’s they usually ignore. By nightfall, the after-work crowd arrived, overflowing the gallery and filling the hallways, stairs, and rotunda. GOP uneasiness now edged toward panic.
Then came the spark. At 11:46 pm, with the GOP just moments away from forcing a final vote, Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, fed up with the chair’s deliberate refusal to call on her to speak, spoke up anyway: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
EXPLOSION! Women in the gallery erupted in applause and cheers, then switched to jeers, releasing pent-up anger at the lawless effort by so-called leaders to run roughshod over them. A deafening chant arose: “Let her speak! Let her speak!…” People outside the chamber joined in the dissidence, furious at the lawmakers’ disrespect for them. The righteous clamor surrounded and overwhelmed those on the floor–senators couldn’t hear themselves speak and were visibly spooked, business could not be conducted, and the clock ticked past midnight as Dewhurst and his allies frantically tried to claim the bill had passed. Later, with hundreds of witnesses objecting and video of the clock being tweeted and posted online to prove that the vote came after midnight, he was forced to admit the bill had died.
As everyone knew, it wouldn’t stay dead, for the right-wing governor would call another special session so he and his right-wing majority could finally take their slap at the ladies of our state. But Wendy and Texas women made them do it in the open, exposing them as a bunch of political pricks in power ties who withered when the ladies talked back.
It was a hoot to hear these men-in-charge practically tremble as they spoke after being routed by the women: “Never in the history of Texas have they seen that kind of mob rule,” Rick Perry later whimpered on Fox News. Two days later, at a national Right to Life Convention, he huffed that Sen. Davis’ filibuster was “nothing more than the hijacking of the democratic process” (never mind that the process had been a sham from the start, or that the gallery was merely asserting corrective democratic authority over the abusive autocracy of out-of-control officials).
Tremulous legislators also expressed their fear of women, often in melodramatic and completely silly terms: “We had terrorists in the Texas State Senate opposing [our bill],” spewed one; “Some days u r extra thankful we still have the right 2 protect ourselves & the 2nd amendment–today is 1 of those days,” tweeted another lawmaker, flashing gun-toting bravado in support of a bill that takes core legal protections away from all womenkind in Texas.
Most comical, though, was Dewhurst, a prissy, multi-millionaire public official who’d prefer never having to deal with the public: “An unruly mob, using Occupy Wall Street tactics,” he shivered after his embarrassing defeat.
Dewy (as he’s been dubbed) was so flustered by the estrogen power he encountered on June 25 that he blundered into “Tampongate” a couple of weeks later. When the senate convened its re-do session to pass the bill, the scaredy-cat Lt. Guv imagined that women intended to pack the gallery and throw tampons and such down onto the senate floor. While he couldn’t outright ban women from their own capitol building, he did order guards to seize all feminine products at capitol security checkpoints! Ridiculed by Sen. Kirk Watson as “boneheaded,” Dewhurst was forced to call off his paranoid, police-state seizure of those dangerous feminine projectiles.
Afterwards, apparently trying to save face, he created a fantastical story about 19 jars of urine and feces that guards had confiscated from purses. See, he seemed to say, these women are despicably vicious! “Really?” asked reporters and others. “Show these jars to us.” Alas, he said, they’d all been thrown away. Worse for him, reporters could not find a single guard who’d even heard of the jarred excrement, much less seized any.
Yet, to this day, Dewhurst insists that women posed a bodily threat . He has since asserted that not only had he saved Texas from the ignominy of the Great Tampon Toss, but that it had been a plot devised by “individuals with the International Socialist Movement.” Had Davy Crockett known Texas would produce this goofball, he’d have rethought the worthiness of dying at the Alamo.
A war on many fronts
It’s tempting to say: Only in Texas. But, hardly a day goes by without hearing of yet another state–as well as Congress–taking shots at women.
Equal pay. Even proposals requiring that female employees doing the same level of work as men be paid the same come under attack. This is a widely accepted principle of fundamental fairness, yet all but eight House Republicans voted against 2009’s “Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act,” and GOP senators killed the 2012 Paycheck Fairness Act with a filibuster. Meanwhile, working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), extremist GOP governors and legislators in such states as Wisconsin and Minnesota have been attacking equal pay rights in their jurisdictions. Indeed, just days before Wendy Davis’ filibuster, Gov. “Oops” Perry fell in step with this vindictive national push by vetoing an equal pay law that his GOP colleagues had voted for, thus infuriating even Republican women and stoking the conflagration that followed.
Rape. For pure misogyny, though, it’s hard to beat the US Senate. Responding to the rampant rise of sexual assault in the military (a Pentagon report indicates 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact last year alone), Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia offered the boys-will-be-boys defense, saying the cause was nothing more than “the hormone level created by nature.” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama endorsed Saxby’s scientific insight, but goosed it up with the favorite bugaboo of far-right preachers: Pornography. Yes, pictures of evil nekkid women are to blame for the surge in rapes, he suggested in June!
Sick Leave. In addition, many legislative attacks on worker rights are, in essence, attacks on women. More than half of working moms do not get paid sick leave benefits–worse, eight out of 10 low-wage workers (about two-thirds of whom are women) must go to work sick or lose pay… and possibly their jobs. Many cities across the country are responding to this inequity with ordinances requiring companies to let workers earn sick leave days, as they should’ve been doing all along–both as a matter of common decency and public health.
So in the past couple of years, ALEC has rushed to the rescue–not of ill workers, but of ethically sick corporate employers. Using a despicable bill that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shoved into law, ALEC is pushing legislators to impose “state preemption” on local governments, banning them from passing paid sick-leave requirements.
McDonald’s, Red Lobster, Taco Bell, and such other low-wage exploiters as Disney World, have lobbied heavily to get ALEC’s preemption model introduced in at least a dozen states this year–and Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee have already enacted it.
Still, though, the most aggressive and virulent right wing attacks on women today involve the fusillade being fired to (1) maim reproductive rights, (2) kill Planned Parenthood, and (3) close off the poor and near-poor from access to women’s health services. Again and again, we’re seeing small, pious, tightly organized, male-dominated groups in our society insisting that they are the chosen ones, the autocrats ordained to rule over all women on the deeply personal, intrinsically private matter of choosing (for many different and difficult reasons) whether or not to seek an abortion.
Ironically, these authoritarians are mostly self-proclaimed small-government conservatives, yet they demand that the government be given practically unlimited power to control the minds and intrude most intimately into the bodies of women. This includes forced abdominal ultrasounds; transvaginal probes; interference with doctors’ medical judgments; required reading of state-written, anti-abortion scripts to abortion seekers; mandatory viewing of graphic, quasi-religious, government-made propaganda videos; arbitrary waiting periods; contrived barriers to deny access to doctors and facilities; and eliminating any abortion option for women made pregnant by rape or incest.
No matter how invasive one state law becomes, there’s a push elsewhere to up the ante. The new Texas law says a woman has no choice after 20 weeks of pregnancy (including if she was raped). But as Salon.com reports, Arkansas passed a law criminalizing abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (around 12 weeks). A new North Dakota law bars abortion after six weeks (before most women even realize they’re pregnant). An Alabamaproposal would lower the bar to the moment an egg is successfully fertilized (thus extending the full legal rights of “personhood” to a spermatozoa, making contraception illegal). And, lest you think it’s impossible to be any more restrictive, an Arizona law declares that pregnancy dates back to the first day after a woman’s last menstrual period prior to getting pregnant (meaning a “baby” would legally exist two weeks before conception–miraculous, indeed).
While the “war” metaphor is badly overused in our culture (having been stretched across everything from crime to Christmas), it is apt here. As a Texas right-wing Rep. proudly proclaimed this spring: “Of course it’s a war–on birth control, abortion, everything.”
By “everything,” he means our evolved American culture, which has progressed from “Father Knows Best” to The Pill, then to Roe v. Wade, on to the emergence of women as bosses and powerful congressional leaders, and now to the likelihood that females will soon rise all the way to the American presidency. In the quick span of a half century, women have organized and mobilized to achieve a more democratic social order that includes sexual freedom, rising economic independence, greater visibility in public life, and a heightened control of their own destiny.
The struggle is not, as the right wing piously claims, about some precise time limit for abortions or “protecting” the health of pregnant women, but about reasserting power over uppity females. If a woman can be barred from controlling her own uterus, then everything else she thinks she controls is in doubt.
The corporate connection
In July, a Wisconsin journalist marveled that the state’s anti-choice contingent has been winning the legislature’s abortion battles, despite spending very little on lobbying and elections. “How is that possible?” he asked the right-wingers. It’s God’s will, they explained, claiming to be on “the right side” and to enjoy the support of the grassroots. “So we don’t need a ton of dollars.”
Yet, in a poll last fall, 60 percent of Wisconsinites said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with barely a third supporting the anti faction. So, what gives?
It’s not what gives–but who. Start with the widespread power of the Catholic church, which throws its tax-free wealth and bully pulpits behind the groups fighting against women’s reproductive rights. From bishops to parish priests, the church’s autocratic hierarchy constantly delivers instructions to the faithful that even condoms are evil, much less abortion. Of course, a multitude of Catholics refuse to go along, but this just seems to make the patriarchy more extremist, absolutist, and vociferous, demanding obedience in the name of the Father. The church’s “non-political” preaching, teaching, and unrestricted spending constitutes an overtly political, multimillion-dollar subsidy for the anti-woman lobby.
Then there’s a surprising funding source that surreptitiously supports the no-abortion zealots: Corporate America. The involvement of these super-rich entities has drawn practically zero media coverage, and you certainly won’t see corporations up front at rallies or proudly listing their brand names as sponsors of anti-choice groups. But who do you think financed and helped organize the hundreds of legislative, gubernatorial, and congressional campaigns of current officeholders who’re now pounding women with the harshest, most oppressive, and goofiest laws against reproductive rights and equality?
The Koch brothers’ network of corporate billionaires is one stealth backer. Also Karl Rove’s long list of corporate blue-chip funders, the dark money conduit of the US Chamber of Commerce, and other storehouses of corporate cash regularly disburse truckloads of Big Business dollars across the country to elect those extremist candidates. Not that top corporate executives actually agree with the war on women. But they also don’t care if abortion is outlawed, because they’re rich and can quietly arrange any abortions their families choose.
Brand-name corporations willingly finance hordes of anti-choice candidates as part of an obscenely cynical political bargain in which “pro-life” morphs into “pro-corporate.” After all, Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, et al. don’t have ground troops, nor do they have a winning political message for their own self-serving agenda (“Hey everyone, what say we save Exxon from the whales? And let’s protect poor Wall Street from Elizabeth Warren, too!”).
The greedheads need boneheaded candidates who’ll go to extremes (“Protect the holy sperm!”) to gin up their ideological base, get elected, and then dutifully serve the corporate interests. That’s exactly how the tea party is being used. The same corporate giants also finance ALEC, which has written and pushed many bills to take reproductive rights away from women (the House sponsor of the 20-week abortion ban in Texas is the state chair of ALEC).
But another well-funded group, Americans United for Life (AUL), has become the primary legislative front group for the anti-choicers, hawking the most extreme program. It’s not only intent on criminalizing abortion, but it was also the instigator in 2011 of the national witch hunt trying to destroy Planned Parenthood. Claiming to be a “charity,” AUL shyly and slyly refuses to tell us where it gets its money.
A movement arises
Anti-abortion absolutists like AUL, along with yahooing legislators who serve them, are exultant: “We’re winning everything!” they exclaim. A two-legged ego like Rick Perry has even calculated that he can ride the women-bashing wave all the way to the White House in 2016.
But a Wisconsin Republican lawmaker who personally supports more restraints on women’s rights has seen the national polls, felt the pulse of La Publica, and senses a rising political reality: “All we’re going to do is panic people, and this is going to blow up if we don’t begin to moderate some of this stuff.”
Sometimes you lose when you “win,” because you get to sipping your own bathwater and thinking it’s champagne. In Texas, for example, the Republican roughshodders have not only created a legitimate gubernatorial contender in Wendy Davis (if she chooses to run), but more significantly, they’ve revived a movement that’s much bigger than they are. As an old Texas saying puts it: “Don’t piss off momma. If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
In particular, it’s the younger Texans–men as well as women–who’re newly focused on this abusive power elite. As my longtime friend Cecile Richards, national president of Planned Parenthood, correctly called it: “They have energized a whole new generation of young activists, and for that I’m grateful.”
It’s that movement that matters. It’s fueled by the progressive populist spirit of ordinary but strong women who will not be put down. As Davis said of them in July, “[they] deserve to determine the direction of their lives, deserve to be recognized as full people, capable of making decisions. The fight for the future of Texas has just begun.”
And for the future of America.