Leticia Van de Putte on ‘Let Her Speak’ and the True Story of the Filibuster
For the former state senator, accurate representation in the Hollywood biopic goes beyond historical accuracy.
State Senator Leticia Van de Putte arrived at the Capitol in the final moments of Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster against an anti-abortion bill on June 25, 2013. Van de Putte had planned the procedure along with Davis and other Democrats in the Texas Senate, but her father’s unexpected death had taken her to San Antonio right before it actually began. But even after burying her father earlier that day, Van de Putte knew that she needed to be in Austin to support her colleagues. There in the Capitol, after Senate Republicans had ended Davis’s filibuster due to what they considered rule violations, Van de Putte posed her now-famous question to the chamber: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” Her query set off a round of cheers from supporters of the filibuster who had gathered in the gallery, filled the Capitol halls and rotunda, and spilled outside. The wall of noise made it impossible for the Senate to vote on the bill before the midnight deadline.
But in the first draft of Let Her Speak, a proposed biopic about Davis’s life and the filibuster, Davis, not Van de Putte, asks the pivotal question.
When the misattribution of the famous quote became public after news outlets acquired the script last week, Van de Putte and others were concerned. “In Hollywood there is a bias and Latinas get the roles as maids and caretakers or villains or criminals. And this was neither,” Van de Putte says. “This was a state senator who came back and expressed her feelings at that particular moment, which set off the people being able to finish that filibuster. Not me, not Wendy, not the senators on the floor: the people ended that filibuster.”
Davis shared Van de Putte’s concern about the error. She responded to the criticism publicly, posting on her Facebook page to her “fabulous feminist friends” that she had heard their concerns and had already raised them with Mario Correa, who wrote the script. “Rest assured that I have already expressed my position that my sister Senator, Leticia Van de Putte, be appropriately credited with the incomparable role that she played in sparking the voices of the ‘unruly mob’ on the night of the ‘people’s filibuster,’” Davis wrote. “The writer, Mario Carrea [sic] is incredibly talented, committed to telling our story authentically, has a history working in politics for a strong woman, and is Latino himself. He has already incorporated my suggested change that Leticia’s character, not mine will speak that iconic line, as it should be!” Davis also told Van de Putte in a text message that she told Correa to give the statement back to her character.
“I trust what Wendy says,” Van de Putte says. “But it’s Hollywood.” She believes that Correa will work to accurately depict the filibuster, but also understands why he gave Davis the line: The filibuster is the movie’s climax, but the film tells the story of Davis’s life.
Misattribution of the line isn’t the only inaccuracy in the script. It overemphasizes Davis’s role leading up to the filibuster, portraying the senator as convincing reluctant Democrats to filibuster. Van de Putte says that though Davis had offered to filibuster, so had other Democrats, including herself. Leading up to the deadline, Van de Putte recalls that they hadn’t yet settled on who would speak, although the team recognized the significance of a woman standing up against the anti-abortion bill.
When her father was killed in a car accident four days before the end of the legislative session, Van de Putte took herself out of consideration for the filibuster. As she left the Capitol on Friday to drive to San Antonio to bury her father, she stopped to grieve with her colleague, Senator Kirk Watson, and let him know that she could not be the one to speak. “I told him, “Tell Wendy to get ready. There’s no way. I won’t be back,’” Van de Putte recalls.
But at the reception after her father’s funeral, Van de Putte saw a photo of him at the Capitol in a slideshow. Reminded of how her father had stood up for her, Van de Putte realized she had to return to the Capitol and stand up for the women who would be affected by the anti-abortion bill. She says her father would have supported the filibuster in person as well. “Had he not died, he would have been there that night,” Van de Putte says. “My dad would have been there. He would have demanded to be there.”
Upon arriving at the Capitol late that night, Van de Putte felt emotionally drained. “I didn’t have anything,” she says. “I didn’t have any energy. I had nothing to pull from the well.” She says she spent nearly half an hour crying in the Senate lounge before several women encouraged her to get into the chamber and fight with her colleagues. When Senator Donna Campbell raised a third rule violation against Davis, claiming that her mention of Roe v. Wade was unrelated to the bill, Van de Putte decided to fight.
“I thought, ‘Well that’s odd,’” Van de Putte says. “This is a bill about abortion facilities and regulations about facilities and process of abortion. And the last time I looked, Roe v. Wade was the monumental decision of the Supreme Court on abortion. And I knew that I could argue that.”
But after she walked to the dais to speak, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst encouraged her to “sit this one out” after her recent losses. (She had buried her infant grandson a few weeks prior to her father’s death.)
“That angered me to no end,” Van de Putte recalls. “And I replied in very colorful language, ‘Thank you for your concern, but you can’t inflict any more pain on me than I already have burying my grandson and my dad, and I will argue this point. I’ve lost too much, and I’m not going to lose this argument.’”
Van de Putte successfully managed to reverse that rule violation, but Davis was eventually given a third and final violation for mentioning Texas’ 2011 law requiring sonograms before abortions, which Republicans claimed was off-topic. After Davis’s filibuster ended around 10 p.m., Democrats rose to the mic in an attempt to continue delaying the vote until midnight. But Van de Putte kept getting overlooked to speak. At one point, she says, her mic was even cut off. It was anger—both at how her fellow legislators looked past her, and how society overlooks women at large—that prompted her question.
“People have asked if I had planned to say that. I didn’t even plan to be there, but I certainly didn’t plan to be ignored,” Van de Putte says. “But what happened as I said those words was the sentiment of women all came bubbling up: It wasn’t just about that moment or that bill or reproductive rights.” For Van de Putte, her frustration went beyond that moment and the anti-abortion bill, reflecting her frustration with a legislative session where Governor Perry had vetoed an equal pay bill and the legislature had failed to expand Medicaid. “It was about women and how we’re treated, and how the issues that are important to us are not recognized,” says Van de Putte.
After her question, the cheering crowd overpowered the voices of the legislators in what became the “people’s filibuster,” creating a moment that Van de Putte describes as both a “triumphant and frightening” experience. The cheers were so loud in the gallery and from the rotunda that the legislature came to a standstill and the Capitol building began to shake.
For Van de Putte, allowing her character to speak her question in the Let Her Speak script holds importance beyond historical accuracy. In 2013, she was not only fighting for what she considered to be women’s rights, she was fighting to be heard. Van de Putte believes that to do justice to the story of the filibuster, the movie must give credit to the women who made it happen that day: Davis, Van de Putte, and the thousands of women who cheered them on.