filibuster

Bodies That Mattered

By

“I am concerned about the damage we are doing to this body.”  —Sen. Rodney Ellis

“This is about the dignity of the body and the integrity of the body.” —Sen. John Whitmire

“At what point does a female senator have to raise her hand and her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” —Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

 * * *

By 6 PM Tuesday night, I was stiff and sore and shaky in my Texas Senate gallery seat. I had tweaked my right knee somehow, and it let out audible pops when I extended it periodically to relieve the twinges of pain. A wave of nausea earlier in the day had let me know how hungry I was getting, but it passed quickly, leaving only a light trembling in my limbs. My jaw ached naggingly, as it always does when I’m under stress, and I rubbed it absently with my fingers while my eyes darted from the Senate floor to my Twitter feed, which I was obsessively updating. My mouth was gummy, and a faint whiff of blood lingered in my sinuses, the smell I always associate with a migraine coming on.

That’s how it felt to sit for eight hours without food or water or bathroom breaks in the Senate gallery. I don’t know how it felt to stand for twice that long, with no support except a pair of running shoes, a back brace, and a ring of orange-clad supporters live-tweeting your words to the world.

* * *

This is a story about whose bodies matter.

Over the past couple of years, Texas has gutted the highly cost-effective and functional Women’s Health Program, defunded Planned Parenthood, and forced every woman seeking an abortion to get a transvaginal ultrasound in a law designed to change her mind by simultaneously violating her, shaming her, and breaking her heart.

Senate Bill 5, as you probably know by now, would, among other things, raise the medical standards of the state’s abortion providers to those of ambulatory surgical centers, despite the low risk factors associated with both medical and surgical abortion (especially when compared with childbirth, with can legally occur at home without a doctor’s supervision). The prohibitive cost of updating these facilities would result in their widespread closure, leaving five clinics (all located in urban areas) to serve 13 million Texas women.

The sickening irony of all this, of course, is that after denying women access to basic affordable health care, Texas Republicans have the gall to suggest that SB5 is intended to protect women—from unsafe abortions. After all, how could anyone be against “raising medical standards”? In the House on Sunday, Rep. Senfronia Thompson hung a wire coat-hanger on the mic as a reminder of just how much damage those “standards” could inflict.

This is all horrifying, but as long as we’re on the topic of insult-to-injury, I should also add that as a Texas woman, I have often had to listen to well-meaning ignoramuses respond to these facts with snarky secession jokes and the question, “What do you expect from Texas?” Suggesting, I suppose, that if I and 13 million other American women are denied access to a constitutionally guaranteed right, it’s because by living in Texas we are essentially, you know, asking for it.

Perhaps this explains the radio silence from major media outlets on Tuesday, when 170,000 viewers huddled around their laptops to watch the live-feed while CNN discussed the calorie content of a blueberry muffin. When the New York Times finally deigned to cover the battle Texas women and their supporters had been fighting tooth and nail for a week, they buried Sen. Wendy Davis’s name in the seventeenth paragraph. She was briefly mentioned in the second paragraph, but only as “a petite Fort Worth Democrat.”

Do Texas women’s bodies matter? More than their names, I suppose.

* * *

Tuesday night Texas women fought to take our bodies back. Not just our individual bodies, but the metaphorical ones that theoretically represent us by proxy: the House, the Senate, the body politic.

According to the rules of decorum enforced in the House and Senate chambers, spectators in the gallery are not allowed to clap, cheer, hold signs, or make hand gestures of support or censure. So our only weapon was to be a mass of bodies wearing orange—the University of Texas’s color, chosen because there are always enough on hand in Austin print-shops to get a thousand t-shirts made in a couple of hours. Silent apart from hushed golf-tournament whispers, we leaned forward in our seats to watch the proceedings, cramped and anxious, hands flying across keyboards and iPhones as we collectively posted our cheers and snark and rage to Twitter in hundreds of thousands of 140-character tweets that all said essentially the same thing: We are here, we are here, we are here.

On Sunday night, during the hearing in the House of Representatives, spectators in the gallery had been allowed to enter and exit freely for snacks, water, and bathroom breaks; on Tuesday, leaving the Senate gallery for even a moment meant losing your place. Hence my fasting and, uh, holding it. (Sen. Davis, we are informed in the latest peek beneath a Texas woman’s skirt, had a catheter. Next time I’ll bring one, too.)

After some internal debate, I finally left. In the conference room, devouring the pizza a friend had sent and gulping down three bottles of water in a row, I revived enough to start regretting my decision. With the line to get back in wrapping around three stories of the central Capitol rotunda, I would have to spend hours waiting, with no view of the proceedings and no likelihood I would make it back in by the end of the night. I headed to the packed overflow auditorium instead.

It was only after watching the Jumbotron live-feed for a few minutes that I understood the chief advantage of the overflow auditorium. Unlike the tense, silent gallery, here we could clap and pump our fists and yell as loud as we wanted. Every time Sen. Judith Zaffirini raised an eyebrow, every time Sen. Kirk Watson waved the rule book in the air, every time Sen. Rodney Ellis made a parliamentary inquiry sound like an inside joke, and above all, every time Sen. Wendy Davis said, “I do not yield the floor,” we screamed, we cried, we stamped our feet. “Wendy! Wendy! Wendy! Wendy!” we chanted for the camera that swept over the room, footage we were promised would somehow be made available to her, like the tweets she was supposedly able to see on her electronic device.

Our bodies moved as if on their own. Tears prickled in our eyes. We raised our hands and we raised our voices.

For one horrifying moment in the auditorium, a shout rang out for someone with medical training. An elderly woman in the center aisle lay motionless on the floor. People in the crowd rushed over to look and had to be shouted and shooed away, and for a moment it seemed like chaos was going to erupt in the auditorium. Paramedics came, blocking the exit, and the crowd’s attention was now split between the tense point of order unfolding silently on the screen and the life of a white-haired woman who had been in the crowded Capitol all morning, perhaps foregoing food and water for long stretches of time, as I did. Her friends in the auditorium testified that she had been fighting for women’s rights her whole life. “She gave her body for Wendy Davis!” someone yelled as the paramedics took her away, and a few in the crowd cheered, because at that point no one knew what else to do.

* * *

Our bodies are intractable, inescapable realities, and so little about them has to do with choice. I cannot choose whether to be hungry or thirsty, healthy or sick. A slave cannot choose to be free, a woman cannot choose to be equal, and no one on earth can choose to be safe from the violations others inflict on their bodies.

Because choice is hemmed in by a thousand restraints, the language of choice that dominates the abortion rights movement can be misleading. The word “choice,” in fact, is closely associated in its earliest uses with matters of preference and taste—a choice wine, for example—matters we do not associate with our access to medical care. Its Old English root cyre means “free will.” To say “I have the choice” means “I have options”; choice is, inherently, the power of choice, the freedom of choice.

This is probably what makes it more appealing than its near-synonym “decision,” a word that, with its roots in de- (“off”) and cere (“cut”), calls up the inherent but largely invisible restraints surrounding choice. A decision weighs two or more paths that cannot coexist with one another and always cuts one or the other of them off, along with the infinite possibilities, both good and bad, that path would have enabled. Whichever diverging road you choose in a wood, it will always have made all the difference, a difference you can never know. (This is what some pro-lifers mean when they claim, with optimistic logic, that an aborted fetus might have become the woman or man who would cure cancer. Alas that more of us humans grow up to be bigots than research scientists, and that the same people who make this argument have effectively removed access to cancer screenings for millions of Texan women.)

However true it is that an abortion cuts off an abundance of possibilities, we know that the decision to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term can cut as well. Sometimes it literally cuts into a woman’s body, as in a Caesarian, or weakens her heart, or hospitalizes her. Sometimes it kills her slowly, via the loss of a job, the ostracization of a community, the renewed dependency on an abusive husband or parent, another revolution in the generational cycle of poverty, the denial of adequate resources to her other children, or the loss of lives she would save if she, dear God, had been able to pursue a PhD in biology and had cured cancer in a research lab. While the word “decision” highlights the fact that it is often hard to tell the difference between a greater good and a lesser evil, “I choose my choice” is the rallying cry that gives voice to the fantasy of individual control over one’s destiny.

But destiny doesn’t always listen. A married friend of mine, when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, chose to carry the baby to term. She miscarried six months later when the umbilical cord wrapped around the fetus’s neck, strangling it. Because she and her husband had not been prepared for a baby and she had felt ambivalent about the pregnancy, she suffered a secret, superstitious fear that she had somehow been responsible. This fear and shame was compounded when she and her husband could not find a single doctor in Austin who were able to abort the already deceased fetus. [Similar story here.] They were told that because of the chilling effect of Texas’s intense restrictions on late-term abortion, interns and residents are not trained for anything other than C-sections and deliveries. She walked around for days with a dead fetus inside of her, and ultimately had to undergo induced labor, a far riskier procedure than a D&E abortion (though not so risky as a C-section), to deliver the fetus.

The induced labor began at 8:00 AM and ended at 5:30 PM, when, after many long, painful hours of crying, pacing, and squatting in the hospital shower under a stream of cold water (the hot water wasn’t working), she asked for an epidural and then delivered while it was being set up in the next room. For a week afterward she woke up in a panic in the middle of the night, searching for the baby that her post-delivery hormones told her should be in bed with her.

To say that most women choose abortions is misleading. They do not choose to be among the 3% of women for whom birth control fails. They do not choose not to be able to access birth control in the first place, and they do not choose to be born into communities where they are deliberately prevented from learning about it. They do not choose to be raped or abused, or to be left in poverty by their partners with other mouths to feed. They do not choose to have fetal anomalies, life-threatening infections, or late-term fetal demise. These things happen, and when they happen, women make decisions, because we have to, because our bodies are on the line.

Abortion is testimony written on the body in invisible ink. We do not know who around us has had an abortion, or why. Abortion is the silent testimony of the body that survives. We can choose to speak from those wounds, but we cannot choose who will listen.

* * *

Around 1:00 PM on Tuesday, Sen. Davis started reading testimony from the three hundred citizens who signed up but were denied the right to speak at the public hearing a week earlier. Rep. Byron Cook, chairman of the State Affairs Committee, had called the prior testimony, delivered in three-minute increments over several hours, “repetitive.”

As Sen. Davis read through the individual stories Cook had found so tedious, the frantic tweeting began. “@JulesAboutTown, she’s reading your testimony!!” “@andreagrimes, she’s reading your testimony!!” Hearing the names of friends and colleagues called out on the Senate floor, I was moved to tears. Some of them who had stayed at the Capitol until 3:00 a.m. on a work night the week before to get their three minutes on the stand couldn’t return on Tuesday because of jobs or family obligations or health conditions. They had been sent home silent; now their words were ringing out on the live feed for all the world to hear, these brave, intelligent women and men telling the stories we silence again and again.

After the testimony, Sen. Davis began reading through stories submitted to her website, some so harrowing that she could barely choke her way through them, others presenting reasoned arguments filled with data, others still passionate screeds against misogyny. A point of order was eventually raised to discuss how long she could continue reading from a single document, a discussion that was eventually overshadowed by the question of whether she could continue to speak at all.

* * *

Around seven hours into the filibuster, a black man touched a white woman’s body in the process of helping her adjust her back brace. That was officially the point at which everything turned upside-down.

Before Sen. Rodney Ellis offered his fatal assistance, everyone was still pretending that details like whether or not the bill was intended to completely dismantle Roe v. Wade in Texas actually mattered. Earlier points of order, while clearly intended to close Sen. Davis’s mouth, had at least pertained to the matter at hand. Somewhere during #BackBraceGate, questions about the rules of filibuster—what constitutes a violation, how many “warnings” a senator is given, what the consequences of those warnings are, and whether the rules come from the letter of the law or the traditions of the Senate—began to decenter the filibuster away from women’s bodies and toward the legislative body, by way of one woman in the room who had come to stand in for both.

FILIBUSTER_61_TRSen. Ellis, pleading for senators to vote according to the traditions of the Senate, listed examples of Texas filibusters in which the speaker had received some form of assistance from colleagues. “I am concerned about the damage we are doing to this body,” he pleaded, meaning the Senate body. Eyes throbbing from the flourescent lights and the multiple screens, ears straining to hear, one foot balancing on the floor flamingo-style as I propped my laptop against my hurt knee so I could ricochet his words out to the Twittersphere as quickly as possible, I thought of all our bodies, sustaining the damage of missing home and family and meals and sleep, putting ourselves on public display, saying, we are here, we are here, we are here.

A few minutes later, Sen. Tommy Williams insisted that a filibuster was “a kind of endurance test,” like a marathon or any other extreme sport, and, acknowledging the virtues of this made-up, macho rule, the Senate ruled along party lines that Sen. Wendy Davis did not have the right to continue speaking for her constituents.

* * *

The Senate hearing had begun with the absence of a woman, and that’s where it ended. Not coincidentally, she happened to be a woman whose body marks her as a member of one of the most historically marginalized groups in Texas: San Antonio’s Sen. Letitia Van de Putte, whose Tejano heritage has given her a lifetime to observe whose bodies matter in the state of Texas. Sen. Van de Putte came late to the hearing after spending Tuesday morning at the funeral of her father, who had been killed in a car crash.

But when all we can do is show up, our very silence speaks. Sen. Van de Putte laid claim to her initial absence as a powerful tool, requesting a detailed explanation of why Sen. Davis was shut down, since, she stated in a trembling voice, she had not been following the Senate proceedings from her father’s graveside. Together with Sens. Kirk Watson, Zaffirini, West, and Ellis, she helped stage a mini-filibuster (a fellow-buster?) over questions of parliamentary procedure.

But there were still twenty minutes on the clock when Sen. Van de Putte, having attempted to call for an adjournment during roll call and been either unheard or ignored, asked the million-dollar question: “At what point does a female senator have to raise her hand and her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”

The tension broke its back on that statement. Choruses of relief, delight, and rage echoed through the Capitol. Watching the Jumbotron, it was impossible to hear the shouting in the gallery over our own, but when we saw Sen. Duncan lift his gavel, look around nervously, and then put it back down again, we knew that the battle, that night at least, had been won by a Tejano woman who Republicans had hoped wouldn’t even be able to make it to the proceedings—much like they hoped that, should SB5 pass, many, many Tejano women across the state would not be able to make it to abortion clinics to access medical care.

Sen. Van de Putte never got an answer from Sen. Duncan. She got it instead from all of the bodies in the Capitol. There is video footage of those bodies being jerked out of the Senate gallery with varying degrees of force by State Troopers who flooded the gallery. Some of the clapping, hollering spectators resisted. Others, like a friend of mine who is now wearing a sling, did not, but were wrenched and bruised anyway. Witnessing these incidents thanks to dozens who recorded them on cell phones, we can see the bodies that mattered that night.

Gov. Perry, of course, disagrees. “Just remember,” he told the National Right to Life Convention shortly after the bill’s defeat, “the louder the opposition screams, the more we know we’re doing something right.” He has announced his plans to keep right on ignoring our raised voices, through the second special session he called for Monday, July 1, and for as long as he is governor of our state.

But after the events of last week, Texan women are no longer so easy to ignore. We are not all petite, blond, white women in pink shoes, either. We are also black women, Hispanic women, elderly women, disabled women, transgender women; women tall and strong, women young and soft-spoken, polite women and rude women, making history together side-by-side with our male allies. Whether silent or speaking, sitting or standing, our bodies matter. And when we say no, we mean no.

***

First photo by Eric Gay/AP.

Second photo by Tom Reel.


Amy Gentry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, where she teaches high-school English, performs with feminist sketch-comedy troupe Every Girl's Annual, and runs the Austin branch of Dance Dance Party Party. She obtained her PhD in English from the University of Chicago in 2012. Her work has recently appeared in the LA Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, the Austin Chronicle, and her blog, The Oeditrix. More from this author →