Wendy Davis And ‘Trapped’ Director Dawn Porter Talk Abortion, Television, And Davis’s Political Future
The former Texas gubernatorial candidate readies her second act at SXSW.
There are people you expect to see all over SXSW: Andrew W.K., or Big Boi, or the cast of Silicon Valley. One of the people you might not expect to be a regular presence at the tech/film/music mega-conference, though, is former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis. But Davis is everywhere at SXSW this year. She’s been at screenings of Dawn Porter’s abortion law documentary Trapped; she spoke at the online harassment summit organized for Saturday; she’s appearing on Monday at SXGood to announce a new project, Deeds Not Words; and she’s going to speak at Tumblr’s “79¢ Party” on Wednesday evening, intended “to celebrate women’s voices.”
That’s a lot of SXSW appearances for anybody, let alone a former state senator whose last public move was a failed gubernatorial campaign. But Davis—who came to fame for her 2013 filibuster of the Texas abortion law, a story that’s told (among others) in Trapped—is readying her second act. Texas Monthly caught up with Davis and Porter to talk about abortion, her next moves, and what she says to women who want to take a picture with her.
Texas Monthly: What’s the reaction been like to the film so far?
Dawn Porter: The film premiered at Sundance, and the most surprising reaction from that audience was how emotional people are. One in three American women have an abortion, but there’s so much shame and stigma that there’s not an opportunity to speak about that experience. A number of people have said that after watching it, they felt like they weren’t alone. They were feeling a little bit of grief, but not regretting their decisions, and just that feeling of feeling supported by women. Here, it’s very interesting: People are so much more in tune to the law, so here people are not shocked by what’s happening. I think what the audience here appreciates is seeing some of the people who are standing up for them. Out in the rest of the country, people are not aware of what’s happening here with HB2, or really across the country. Here, there’s a lot more like, “Yeah, finally someone’s putting things together,” and then tying it to the rest of the country.
Texas Monthly: In addition to appearing with Trapped, there’s a big Wendy Davis presence at SXSW this year: the movie, the panel on online harassment, the speech at SXGood, and you’re appearing at Tumblr’s party during SXSW Music, too. What do you have going on that makes having a big presence at SXSW worth doing?
Wendy Davis: I’m continuing to be a voice, as I can, for women—not just for reproductive autonomy and all that that signifies for women’s ability to equalize opportunity in this world, but equal opportunity on a number of levels for women, which of course includes a myriad of issues that have yet to be addressed in the United States. There’s a lot of great work being done and I’ve been proud to be a part of trying to advance to that.
Texas Monthly: What other issues are you thinking about besides reproductive autonomy?
Wendy Davis: Of course, equal pay. You may recall that I, along with the amazing Senfronia Thompson in the Texas House, was successful in passing an equal pay bill here, which was no easy feat—only to have it vetoed by Governor Perry. So Texas is one of only a handful of states that does not have an equal pay law. Even the law that exists at the federal level needs some punch. We need a better mechanism for proactively addressing companies self-examining and bringing pay levels up, much like we’ve seen happen in Great Britain, for example, where companies are required to publicly report their pay scales. As a consequence of that, they’ve done a lot of self-reflection and many didn’t really realize the implicit bias in their pay structure, so things like that. Family leave, of course, very important. But for me, empowering girls—and I say girls purposefully, young girls from the very smallest of ages to not be socialized in ways that treat us to be other than the very equals that we are. That’s important and my work going forward is primarily going to be focused around young women on helping to move this incredibly passionate group of millennial women to some constructive action, because I get asked often by women who want to make a difference, “How do I do it? What do I do?” So we’re putting together an initiative that’s going to help put some real concrete action steps in place for young women to take advantage of.
Texas Monthly: The filibuster was in 2013, and things move fast in politics and in media, but you still clearly have a constituency among the people who came to recognize you then. When you do the Lenny Letter, people want to read what you say. When you’re at SXSW, people want to come see you. Does it surprise you that you to still have this audience that’s hungry to hear what you have to say? Do you see that as an opportunity, or a responsibility?
Wendy Davis: I see it as both. All. All of the above. It’s surprising to me, yes, and incredibly humbling and I feel so honored by it. Every now and then when someone asks to take a photo with me and they apologize for asking, I tell them I thought that the moment my gubernatorial campaign was behind me no one would want to take a photo with me again, so it’s an honor. I feel this incredible responsibility to young women and I see how hungry young women are for female role models in the world. I have been blessed with the opportunity to be one of those, and I take that responsibility very seriously and I want to make sure that I use that opportunity as productively as possible.
Dawn Porter: We didn’t interview Senator Davis for the film, really because as a style choice we wanted to stay in the moment and really use what she did on the floor at the Texas State Capitol as a starting-off point for the political conversation. So when the film was done and we knew we were coming to SXSW, we reached out to her and she immediately said yes, and has been incredibly generous with her time for some random documentary people who called up to say, “Hey, can you come spend days with us?” Her voice is so important and I think there is a hunger for people to have a voice. I think women in particular are feeling like we are being drowned out, and to have her here is incredibly important for us.
Texas Monthly: This is a movie that is very unapologetically talking about abortion and abortion providers. It’s very much on their side. During your campaign, the word abortion didn’t come out a lot. It was language like “women’s health,” and things like that. I’m curious if you’re more comfortable now just being involved with someone who really is very explicit is talking about abortion with a capital A.
Wendy Davis: One of the most extraordinary things about not being in public office anymore is the freedom of no longer being constrained by message management. No matter whether I run for office, or have the ability to hold office again in the future, I will never allow myself to be message-managed again. I think it’s unbelievably important that we de-stigmatize abortion. We can’t hide and pretend that that’s not what we’re fighting for. That is a very important part of what we’re fighting for—along with a host of other reproductive rights. I feel a responsibility that I make sure to continue to speak up and out about that, and give other women the freedom to feel like they can do so as well. Because as Dawn said, one of the reasons that we are where we are on this issue is that these very real, human stories. The unbelievable devastation and the impact of laws like this aren’t necessarily known because it’s a topic that people feel is taboo, and they don’t talk about it in their community conversations, and what Dawn’s done is really to help illuminate that. I hope it prompts a broader conversation that more of us feel comfortable talking openly and without any shame whatsoever about abortion and why it’s important to protect that constitutional right.
Texas Monthly: When you opposed HB2, you and your colleagues made arguments about the purpose of the law that ultimately didn’t affect anyone’s vote when it passed. When the Supreme Court heard arguments last week, justices like Kagan and Ginsburg made similar points, but this time, the people who support the law have to answer them. What’s it like for you, as someone who was saying those things almost three years ago, to see those arguments made in a way that has more consequence?
Wendy Davis: It makes me so grateful for the fact that we have a three-branch system of government. Really that is what the courts are there for, to keep us in compliance with our constitutionally-held values. As a lawyer, it was very important to me, and I know for others on the Senate and the House floor during those debates, to make sure that we set the legal stage to empower this argument as strongly as possible. We knew that we weren’t going to change any minds in terms of the bill’s author and the supporters of the bill, but pinning them to the wall, forcing them to admit that they essentially had absolutely no objective, rational evidence that somehow supported the argument that these laws would make women’s health better, it was important for us to build that record. Because we knew that day would come, and I’m so grateful and thankful for the justice system and how it works, and the fact that we have had our day in court and that we’ve been able to really make those points in a very clear and profound way.
Dawn Porter: I’m actually a lawyer also and I can’t underscore how critical that record is. I think what you have seen in the evolution in this argument and what you saw at the Supreme Court, is that the people challenging the law do not have to ask the Supreme Court to make new law. You can abide by the undue burden standard, because of the record that was created in the states. So saying, we’re not asking you to create a new legal standard, we are asking you to uphold the one that you have adhered to for the last several decades. Legally, this should be an easy case before the Supreme Court. It’s whether or not the politics can actually overcome the law. I think we’re at a real tipping point in our culture of politics. It’s going to be a really important test of our justice system.
Texas Monthly: There are so many different groups of people who are fighting this battle: you’ve got documentarians, you’ve got doctors who are providing the abortions, you’ve got support staff who are running these facilities, you’ve got politicians who are fighting in state houses. How does all that come together?
Dawn Porter: Eighty percent of Americans, if you ask them, believe that abortion should be legal and should be accessible. There’s a range of opinions on that, but the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in the right to an abortion. What I think is happening is a number of us are too silent about that, so part of the effort to use media is to say whatever you believe, use your voice. We all tell our toddlers, “Use your words.” This is a “use your words” moment—if you are complacent, the loudest voices in the choir will win and those results will be devastating. This movie is certainly about abortion as an issue, and women’s rights as an issue, and it’s also about our political system that would allow a small minority to dictate to the rest of us. I hope between brave lawyers, people willing to speak up, and people willing to tell their stories, that that will motivate others to be active.
Texas Monthly: You’ve got Wendy Davis here, who’s obviously someone that people associate with this issue. When you make a movie like this and you get to introduce people to someone like Willie Parker, is that interesting to you?
Dawn Porter: As a filmmaker you’re attracted to people because you see something in them. What I love about my job so much is giving other people the opportunity to see what I saw. Doctor Parker was speaking and had somewhat of a public persona. What’s really thrilling is to see people that don’t think of themselves as extraordinary and, I hope, helping them to see that the clinic owners, their work, is the living embodiment of our democratic system. It’s “I have rights because they are there.” I know that certainly after these screenings, they have said they didn’t see themselves that way and I’m glad that now they do.
Texas Monthly: Is it important to lend the stature that you have as the senator who filibustered the bill to help these people see themselves that way?
Wendy Davis: What happened here in Texas was a profound and important day, and I’ve had the opportunity to continue to speak up about reproductive rights, but what the folks who are highlighted in that movie are doing is the real work—the hard work of fighting day after day after day after day for adequate healthcare for the people that come to their clinics and to fight against the barrage of laws that try in every way possible to shut them down. Their dedication to human beings and the care and concern that they have for them is profound, and I was deeply touched watching the film last night to see the way that Dawn put an incredibly face on the work that they do and the value that they provide. They truly are the unsung heroes, and I’m glad that there’s a film out there that will help people to see that.
Texas Monthly: We’re at SXSW, which is music, film and entertainment, and I know you had some things in the works on television. I’m curious, how’s that going?
Wendy Davis: It’s kind of stalled for now. NBC did not move it forward to its upcoming pilot season, so the producer of the show and the writer of the show are shopping other networks right now.
Texas Monthly: What was the process of developing that like for you?
Wendy Davis: Interesting. I really enjoyed helping to write the script for the pilot, because it gave me an opportunity to give some light to a lot of these political issues that we deal with in Texas. I think that’s what’s so important about a show like that and why I’m hopeful still that we’ll find a home for it is because shining a light on the impact of some of the lawmaking that’s occurring in places like Texas is really, really important. I think a lot of people in the public don’t know what’s happening and they don’t understand how corrupting it is to our shared values.
Texas Monthly: What specific role did you play in the writing? Did you have Final Draft open?
Wendy Davis: I helped to create the storyline, is the best way to say it. After that, the writer would put together that story, give my perspective on whether it was being accurately portrayed, and some suggestions on how to make some changes to achieve that.