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Yesterday, I came home from running errands at about 9am and started following Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas Senate to stop the voting on an abortion bill. I’ve been vaguely following issues relating to new abortion bills being proposed in different US states, mostly via Planned Parenthood and other affiliated groups, through Twitter since the lead up to the US election last year. The increasing power of the conservative, across the globe, both in terms of in government and in the kind of governing they are doing has been concerning for some time. And with similar hanging over our heads here at home, things look grim for women’s rights to do with health access, among other things. Bill SB5 seeks to shut down almost all abortion clinics in Texas by requiring abortions to occur at ambulatories instead. It also seeks to limit abortion-inducing drugs and to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

Going in to watching Senator Davis filibuster, I didn’t really know a lot about the specifics of the bill, SB5. I knew that it had passed the House and had failed in the Senate and this Special Session had been called by Governor Perry (remember him?) to revote on it. I knew that she had to filibuster til midnight, almost 13 hours, to prevent the vote. And that they’d had many sessions in the week leading up, debating elements of the bill. As I tuned in – the Texas Tribune had the session streaming through their website (via Youtube) with a clock ticking down til midnight – and followed on Twitter (the hashtag was #IstandwithWendy), I learned that she couldn’t just talk for those 13 hours, she had to talk on topic. For 13 hours. I tuned in when she’d been speaking for about 9 hours. She looked heroic. She was strong and powerful and engaging as a speaker. For all those hours, she couldn’t stop. Not to eat, not to drink, not to go to the bathroom. And she couldn’t lean against the dais. Many jokes on Twitter referred to The Hunger Games. She’d worn bright pink sneakers for this battle and she stood there talking about the bill.

Immediately, I was captivated – watching a real live female role model launched in full throttle battle. Here was a woman fighting, gallantly, eloquently, passionately, intelligently for all women. (Photo taken from Buzzfeed)

And I learned a lot about the bill itself in listening to her speak – I wished I’d tuned in earlier, in fact. It still floors me that people who clearly know nothing about human biology are so hell bent on legislating in great detail about it. I mean, I guess, it makes sense – the female body is like magic, and we must fear that which we don’t understand. But here is a debate that over the week had seen discussion of Roe V Wade ruled not germane. Not germane to legislation on abortion!!! And a female (!) Senator who actually thought that rape kits performed abortions. When we dumb down politics, and we belittle experts, this is the kind of lawmaking that happens. Other issues with the legislation itself included setting time limits on procedures in relation to the “post-fertilisation date” – which no one, not even doctors can pinpoint. And doctors gave testimony to that fact earlier in the week. What a convenient way of passively moving the dates even more conservatively for procedures so as to make sure you’re in compliance (if you’re not sure, you are going to be more conservative in estimating that date, some women ovulate during their period for example). I gathered from her speech that there was another aspect of the legislation which related to “irreversible physical impairment as a result of pregnancy” – that could be used as a reason for abortion? And that with no other qualifiers to that, Senator Davis asked would incontinence be considered to meet that criteria, for example. She was highlighting that whilst the bill is technical, and in some ways deliberately pushing for limiting abortions (towards eliminating them), they also didn’t really seem to actually understand the full mechanics of conception, pregnancy and childbirth and the full implications of enforcing elements of the bill.

Other elements of the bill put further requirements onto women seeking an abortion. And discussing this aspect of the bill was where it all ramped up. This bill required women to go back to the location of where the procedure was carried out, or where the medication was given, within a set number of hours of the abortion occurring. The Senator raised several issues related to this – that most women actually go back to their GP for that check up rather than the abortion clinic, that it would be hard to know when the abortion occurred if medication like RU486 was taken, and that these ambulatories (which is where all the abortions would now have to be carried out if this bill succeeds) may be far away from where women live. She was discussing the huge burden this places on a woman (as well as expense) in a time of particular stress and placed it in the context of another, related bill that had recently been passed that requires all women seeking abortions to have a sonogram before they can obtain one. Her argument was that this is a lot of requirements to be met, in about a two week timeframe, whilst also considering expense, travel, physical and emotional discomfort etc.

It was at this point that the Republicans called a point of order that this – reference to this other bill – was not germane to the argument. This would be her third warning if upheld. She quickly explained the relevance and then there was deep discussion, off mic, about whether she had breached or not. After some time, the President came back and declared that she had indeed been talking off topic, and that this was her third warning. The gallery cried out, and started chanting “Let her speak” and so did I. (This photo also taken from BuzzFeed shows protestors there to support Senator Davis filling the Capitol Rotunda. The Gallery was also full.)

It’s ridiculous to think these two bills are unrelated and not relevant to each other. As though the requirements to meet them don’t compound. Actually, it’s not ridiculous at all, it was the first example that I watched of this group of men working to use the “rules” to silence a dissenting woman. If we say it’s not germane, then you’ve broken the rules. And we decide what’s germane. Ahhh that old moving the goalposts chestnut.

Several other Democrat Senators were there to help her with her filibuster. They’d been trying to break in earlier to give her a break by asking her if she’d yield to questions, but she refused to yield. (I assume they were friendly questions but I don’t know that – they could have been from Republicans. I did not properly train for this.) Now they stepped up to pick up on the filibuster and try and keep it going – they had about two hours, from memory, to go and I really didn’t think they’d succeed. But gosh it was fascinating. They began asking questions relating to procedural questions – can they appeal decisions but they were also asking if they could appeal the decision of like who could speak first and who could bring points of order and in which order different senators had been speaking. It was a thing of beauty to watch. One senator got the President all tied up in knots as he couldn’t follow the logic of the question and the senator kept re-asking and reexplaining his question for about 10 minutes. In the end, they had to adjourn for another ten minutes whilst I think he drew him a diagram of the question which had to do with which order different senators had asked what. This is important and I’ll get back to it in a minute.

At this point Senator Watson got the floor and spent about 30 or 40 minutes arguing as to whether they should be able to let the floor vote on whether Senator Davis had breached this issue of germaneness. He argued that the previous two points of order had been voted on by the floor and in this case, the President had made a ruling. And he questioned whether this was by the rule book.

In between these two senators essentially filibustering, Senator Van de Putte kept trying to take back the floor. She had originally started this new round of filibustering by asking for an explanation of what the other two points of order had been and what they were in relation to because she had not be in the room when they had occurred. She had been at her father’s funeral. At Her Father’s Funeral. Stop with me for a minute and think about how you would feel on that day. And whether the thing you would feel like doing after a day like that would be to come back to work til midnight. But there she was. And she was also brilliant. When she was allowed to speak, that is. She was one of the senators who had been speaking and there was some contention on who started speaking when, she (and I, cause I’d been watching) maintained she had had the floor and had not yielded it. In the meantime – that 40 minutes of discussion – someone on Twitter had managed to get a message to Senator Van de Putte about the actual rule in the rulebook relating to germaneness – that it was three points of order relating to germaneness, specifically, that ended the filibuster. In Senator Davis’ case, she had two warnings on point of order relating to germaneness and one relating to interference.

(Now, this is really interesting. Another Senator had helped her earlier in the day adjusting her back brace and this was deemed as out of order. In researching to find his name (which I failed to do) I found that in arguing for her not to have a warning in this case, they raised that time that a Republican Senator had been filibustering in that very room and had been surrounded by Senators of both persuasions as he was allowed to change his ASTRONAUT BAG that he was wearing so that he could relieve himself. I mentioned that whole moving of the goalposts thing, yes?)

But Senator Van de Putte was not allowed to even argue this point of whether Senator Davis really had 3 strikes and was out because she kept being shut down by Mr President. There was about 11 minutes left til midnight at this point, and Senator Van de Putte’s frustration at both not being allowed to rightfully hold the floor nor put forward her point led her to this:

That cheering? Yeah that was me at home too. And it is for someone FINALLY saying what those of us watching had been frustrated with – we’d watch men debate for nearly two hours on whether a woman could be allowed to continue to speak. We’d watch a woman trying to also argue for this woman to be allowed to speak and for her, and her alone, to be continually shut down within seconds of speaking compared to men who were allowed to filibuster. And that, ultimately, this filibuster was about letting the women of Texas the freedom to make choices about their own bodies.

The silencing of women couldn’t have been more visually displayed than those three or four hours that I sat there.

And that cheering just kept on going. At first, the people outside the room thought it meant that the bill had been defeated, then they learned that it was about drowning out the President. Later the President said that they’d used “Occupy tactics” to prevent them doing their work. I dunno. It felt very much like people trying to be heard. And frustrated that they were not being given the chance to do so. Or maybe more about not being *listened to*. They tried to clear the gallery but the time expired before the crowd quietened down. Meanwhile, in the remaining minutes – 2 or 3 to midnight – senators were gathering down near the front and then they were calling the roll as the time expired. At first, I thought maybe they were voting on the motion – of whether Senator Davis had breached the issue of germaneness. Or whether they were voting on the appeal of the point of order that had been raised. But after midnight, there was a declaration of an overwhelming majority voting for what sounded like the bill.

And noone knew what was going on. And the mics had been turned off. And there was mayhem. And surely that’s not how laws of government get passed? I remember shouting at about 12:03 – they are voting anyway!!! Nothing can describe the feeling of my stomach dropping to the floor as I stood (in solidarity with Wendy) and watched them conduct the vote ANYWAY. If they were going to change the rules to suit themselves, after making her adhere to them for 13 hours, what did any of it matter? What was the point of the filibuster at all? If she’d not been stopped and had made it all the way to the end, would they also have voted anyway? Were they always going to make the outcome theirs no matter what?

Worse than that, they started to say that the voting had begun before midnight. And they changed the official record on their website to show that had happened. Suddenly there were two versions of the timeline being circulated on the internet – a Before and an After. Did they not know that 200 000 people had watched them conduct that vote after midnight? Did they not realise that people would have had the original timeline open on their desktop?

The camera to the room got cut and we were left to find some guy with an iphone in the crowd outside who was streaming the scene through UStream. We waited for another hour as the Democrats continued to debate the legality of that vote. And eventually it was announced that the bill was dead.

But I’d lost faith. I’d lost faith that this fight – for equality – can be won. I’d watched the men in power blatantly massage the situation to get the outcome they wanted. I’d watched them lie and falsify the proceedings to make it look like it was above board. And I was watching mainstream media start to cover the outcome – that the bill was passed – none of those outlets had been following the proceedings, none of them had seen what had really happened and they’d just gone with the official story from the Senate. The only journalist covering the event was the guy with the phone, and the rest of us watching on Youtube and tweeting to Twitter. I wondered if this is how it happens – the slow apocalypse. I watched as I realised that what we think and feel doesn’t really matter, those guys are going to get the outcome they want. And they are unashamed by that. Why should they be? When you have privilege, you don’t feel bad about not sharing it. It doesn’t ever even occur to you that you should.

But it made me wonder – what do rules really mean? For me, I see many similarities to that whole “tone debate” – where women get told not to shout, not to swear, to speak/debate civilly. To be nice. If we want to be listened to. Well … you know what? Fuck that. You wanna know why we’re angry and why we can’t just speak nicely about how it feels to be silenced, ignored, stripped of our rights? Try watching a woman heroically play by the rules for 13 hours, to speak eloquently, intelligently, informed on the subject matter, get pulled up on imaginary breaches¬† that don’t actually break the rules that the pedants are pushing, and in fact, have been allowed for others (men) in the same situation,¬† and then watch the rules change anyway, after she won. So that she loses anyway. And then tell me what playing nice ever gets you. If it’s not a fair playing field, what does playing nice, speaking softly, actually get you? What has it ever got us? It’s yet to get us equal pay, equal rights, equal voice.

In the end, it was conceded that the vote happened after midnight and so the bill was dead. So the Governor has sent the bill back to the Senate for another special session scheduled for July 1. In other words, keep working on it til you give me the right answer. Which begs the question, why bother with the farce of process when the outcome is already decided?

This wasn’t just about an abortion bill in the US state of Texas.

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  • By Tansy Rayner Roberts on 28 June 2013 at 7:37 am

    The ‘adjusting the back brace’ point was of interest to me, not just with the astronaut suit precedent (which puts it ALL into context!) but also because I hadn’t been watching at that point and it wasn’t clear to me whether Senator Davis had actually asked for help with that, or if her (male) colleague had stepped forward regardless.

    But yes the whole thing was eye-opening as to how the political process works, how men close ranks, but also how damn hard women do have to work to be heard in the political process. And, perhaps – the uplifting part – that this will change, that things are changing. Because the doors aren’t always closed anymore.

    The filibuster strikes me as a ridiculously masculine loophole procedure – and the fact that Senator Davis took it on absolutely made her a hero.

    Playing nice gets you nowhere, it’s true. But also – playing dirty as a woman doesn’t get you anywhere either. Look at how Julia Gillard has been held solely accountable every day of her years as Prime Minister for the way in which she took power over Rudd – and the double standards to which she was held. Yes, she was in no way perfect as a leader of our country, but why is it that she and only she was required to be perfect when the leader of the opposition was being applauded for acknowledging that he lied and made shit up all the time?

    Women are constantly being told that they need to act more like men in order to make it in whatever industry – pitch for more articles, ask for more raises, demand better treatment. If they don’t, they are “complicit” in their inequality. But if they do…

    Well, they asked at the wrong time, or used the wrong tone of voice, or were asking too much, or being unrealistic, or they broke that rule there, the tiny one in the footnotes.

    The positive takeaway I draw from the Wendy Davis filibuster is the support team she had, the people around her. This is all we can do against a deeply, institutionally corrupt society. We can make alliances, and back each other up, and try to talk about this stuff, changing one mind at a time.

    Social media has its faults and its flaws, but it is giving us access to information we never had, and creating an instantaneous historical record – it’s a fascinating tool in the hands of the oppressed. If only the “professional” media were doing a better job of using it to stay in touch with what is going on, instead of pinching Harry Potter metaphors to say to camera.

  • By Helen on 28 June 2013 at 9:29 am

    It was rivetting viewing and horribly depressing at the same time.

  • By AlisaK on 28 June 2013 at 9:34 am

    Because it’s a system set up to make sure we lose.

    It was wonderful watching the support Senator Davis has but at the same time, I feel very depressed that this bill (for example) is going to pass anyway.

  • By AlisaK on 28 June 2013 at 9:35 am

    It really was.

  • By Faith on 28 June 2013 at 11:16 am

    It’s unutterably depressing in a lot of ways, this story, but – well, I wasn’t watching when this whole thing started. I only heard about it later. But I watched this clip on your blog and I heard that crowd ROAR. That was the people talking. Talking so loudly they couldn’t be ignored.

    Democracy is only a nice word to a lot of politicians. It’s incidents like this that test it’s still there.

  • By AlisaK on 28 June 2013 at 5:09 pm

    The roar was amazing. And lasted 10 minutes! It will be interesting to see how this bill goes on July 1. I bet a lot more people will be keeping an eye on it this round and you’re right – it will be interesting to see how this incident tests democracy.
    The problem is that the Republicans have the majority in both houses so … is it more or less democratic not to let the bill pass?

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