Friday, July 19, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Texas State Senator Wendy Davis's filibuster

They called it a "knife fight within the confines of Robert's Rules of Order." It was a filibuster, one coming on the final day of the Texas legislative session. And it was Wendy Davis, a state senator wearing pink sneakers, who pulled it off.

The filibuster, done purely to keep a piece of legislation from being considered or to kill it outright, goes back to ancient Rome, and is being debated as a tactic even today in the U.S. Senate. As rhetorical tools go, it's a rarely used blunt instrument that asks much of the speaker, whose goal is simply to speak long enough to delay the proceedings. Texas is one of just 13 U.S. states with legislatures permitting the tactic, and under its rules, Davis needed to stand unaided, stay on topic, and take no breaks or nourishment. Her target was delaying consideration of a restrictive anti-abortion bill that would limit reproductive health services in the state.

Many legislators attempting a filibuster will read famous speeches or long legislative proposals or the phone book aloud to kill time. But that would be a waste of a speaking platform, wouldn't it? Davis, forced to stay on topic, did so by going in the opposite direction as a speaker: The personal route. Saying "This is my life," she recounted personal stories of her own. Ann Friedman describes it:
She didn’t just rattle off statistics about how women who seek later-term abortions are often doing so as a last resort to protect their own health. She also talked about her own ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition. Davis didn’t just recite talking points about how women take these decisions seriously. She read letters from dozens of women who struggled with the choice to abort a pregnancy — then follow through on that choice. Davis didn’t just explain that this bill would reduce the number of abortion providers in the state to only five far-flung locations. She calmly explained that there was a period of her life during which she could barely afford the gas money to get to and from work, let alone traverse several counties for a $500 medical procedure. She talked about being poor and uninsured and relying on Planned Parenthood.
Kathy Gill notes that, while traditional media ignored the filibuster as it was happening--something it has not done for similar filibusters by men--Davis's filibuster went viral on social media, thanks to a livestream on YouTube and live-tweeting from the capitol:
According to Twitter, the #standwithwendy hashtag was mentioned 400,000 times on Tuesday.There was no comparison between the filibuster and the Supreme Court decision on the voting rights act; Austin trumped the Beltway. With the gallery in an uproar, tweets peaked at 11.58 pm at 5,776 tweets per minute.
You can see the beginning of Davis's filibuster in the news report below. It was ruled after 11 hours that she'd gone off-topic, and she was cut off, leading to 15 minutes of booing and chanting "Let her speak! Let her speak!" by a record number of people watching in the galleries. They kept up the noise until the clock ran out on the session, effectively defeating the bill that night. (It eventually passed the Texas Senate, drawing still more protests.) I don't have a transcript of the filibuster, but there is one of the the text of her remarks at a July 1 rally after the filibuster.

And only after that did traditional media step in. Since the filibuster, backlash against Davis has been fierce, with the New York Times pointing out it wasn't as long as the record-holding stemwinder of a male politician, and Governor Rick Perry pointing out that she was a teen mother herself, saying "It's just unfortunate that she hasn't learned from her own example."

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Put the audience into your speech: Reading from citizens' emails and letters to her office about the bill helped Davis connect with the audience in the chamber and the virtual one beyond it. One activist said, "As she was reading the testimony of all the women who weren’t allowed to testify before the committee, we all knew she was our voice. We were her and she was us." Acting as the voice of others is a sure-fire way to make sure the audience is with you.
  • Use timing to advantage: In her interview with Anderson Cooper (see video below), Davis notes that the filibuster would likely never have happened if a series of errors had not created a window for it on the last day of the session--but she seized that moment, to dramatic effect.
  • Anticipate the physical and mental strain of challenging speaking tasks:  Davis's pink Mizuno Wave running shoes, a smart tactic for someone who expected to stand for hours, gained their own fan base on filibuster day, with reviews on Amazon that now read "The next time you have to spend 13 hours on your feet without food, water or bathroom breaks, this is the shoe for you. Guaranteed to outrun patriarchy on race day." On a serious note, however, Davis says in the interview below "I underestimated how difficult it would be, both physically and mentally."
What do you think of this famous speech?

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