Here’s to Texas’ female lawmakers

This post has been brewing for a few days now. Since I on started scribbling notes for this post on a yellow pad last week, a lot has happened. As such, the scope and direction of the post took many incarnations. This is what I’ve come up with: I’d like to take a look at two of Texas’ female legislators who spoke up this week, and their different receptions.

First up: Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Rep. Thompson, a Houston Democrat, has been a member of the Texas Legislature longer than any other female or black legislator — ever in the state. You may have heard Rep. Thompson’s name last week, as a speech she gave garnered (a little) national attention. A flier (at right) circulated by an anti-tort reform group, The Texas Civil Justice League, featured the image of a child nursing a woman’s breast. The flier, by the way, was in protest of Rep. Thompson’s House Bill 2093, which had to do with insurance. (The bill went on to pass Monday.)

But this was Thursday — a day the bill wasn’t seeing too much action. The flier was too much for Rep. Thompson, and she took the podium in what I believe the House calls “a matter of personal privilege.” (You can watch the video here.) She begins by acknowledging that “during this legislative session, we have spent about 30 or 40 percent of our time kicking the reproductive organs of women down the road. And i thought that that was an issue that we had finished and we had completed.”

Now, at times I must admit, Rep. Thompson reminded me a bit of Queen Latifah’s character on 30 Rock. It may be that sometimes she starts a sentence in one direction and ends in a complete different place grammatically, or her mispronouncing “despicable.” But unlike Queen Latifah’s character, Rep. Thompson actually has something worthy to make a grandiose speech about:

“I find these fliers despicable. I find them distasteful, I find them hateful and I find that they foster disrespect and violence toward women. And I am appalled today that this Texas civil justice league would go so low that they would put out this kind of hate — resentful, bitter, despicable, violent fliers — toward women just to get at a piece of legislation.”

As she spoke, women lined up in the aisles to add comments, pose questions, or just show support. Rep. Carol Alvarado, another Houston Democrat, said, “This piece of propaganda is a below-the-belt political tactic. We have had almost 50-plus amendments and/or bills that have come across the floor this session that I think have demeaned women—but this one takes us to an all-time low.” (I have to admit, I like Rep. Alvarado’s comment almost more than Rep. Thompson’s whole speech. But that’s a whole other post.)

After a couple more comments, including one explosive allegation that Rep. Debbie Riddle later sort of played down, Rep. Thompson ends with a strong kicker — “And men, if you don’t stand up for us today, don’t you walk in this chamber tomorrow” — followed by a standing ovation.

This story made most of the big state newspapers, or at least their websites. And it garnered mentions on Ms Magazine and Feministing. If I had the time, I would love to analyze the media coverage of Rep. Thompson’s speech. But for now, I’ll just point you to one story that transitions well into our next topic. The Texas Tribune took up the issue of sexism in the Texas Legislature on Saturday, and Sen. Wendy Davis had a lot to say.

Sine Die: Sen. Wendy Davis

Actually, Sen. Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, started speaking up (or being heard) in the hours just before Sine Die, the last day of the regular legislative session. On Sunday night, the 138-day battle between the Texas Legislature’s Democratic minority and Republican majority came to a head, or at least a strict deadline. Gov. Rick Perry had told the chambers that they had better pass Senate Bill 1811 — kind of a crucial point to the state budget bill they passed only days earlier because it would alter state law, allowing Texas to give $4 billion less to school districts over the next two-year budget and defer $2 million in education dollars to the following budget — or else. The Texas Legislature traditionally doesn’t tackle big bills in its last day, using it instead for loose ends on other legislation, so Sunday was pretty much it for this bill. Filibuster rumors began circling as the bill came back to the Senate from the House about 9 p.m., and about 10:45 Sunday night, Sen. Davis took a point of order. She easily made it to midnight by talking about how much money each school district stood to lose from the passage the bill. As others have put it before me: She literally talked the bill to death.

Now this ain’t Sen. Davis’ first rodeo — but it could be her last. She’s a freshman legislator who won her seat from a Republican incumbent in 2008, and the way the redistricting maps are looking now, she probably won’t be back in 2013. Basically, she had nothing to lose.

The next afternoon, during a press conference the Democrats held, Sen. Davis had this to say: “Our Legislature has failed to be leaders.” She says that the bill she filibustered will force school districts to raise property taxes: “We’re going to ask every family in Texas to pay higher property taxes so that their children can be properly educated, because we were too afraid to use money that the governor has in the enterprise fund, in the emerging technology fund, because we were too afraid to ask some of our large corporations that are currently benefitting from loopholes not to benefit from those anymore, we were too afraid, as a Legislature, to ask that everyone in the state of Texas share in the economic downturn.” She continues: “We are ready to work today on this failed budget. Whether it’s today, whether it’s a special session that gets called tomorrow, we are ready to do the work to put a budget together that adequately funds public education.”

The difference?

Well, Rep. Thompson and Sen. Davis certainly took stands on different issues. Rep. Thompson preached about the sexism inherent in a flier — circulated by a private group — that objectified women. Sen. Davis stood up for Democratic Texans and for school funding.  (Not to digress too much, but she was also the author of the so-called rape kit bill, which passed and will push police departments to process new evidence and get through backlogs faster.)

But the key difference here wasn’t in their messages but in their reception. After Rep. Thompson’s speech, the Texas Civil Justice League, as well as leaders in the Legislature, apologized. Some legislators, in fact, met afterward to discuss her comments. The Texas Civil Justice League suspended their president/general counsel and their communications director.

But on Monday morning, hours after Sen. Davis’ filibuster, Gov. Rick Perry had this to say: “Well, we still got time to get the work done today. She just, she raised a hurdle. That’s her call, and I’m sure the members of the Legislature that will be back here in special session will have appropriate things to say to her for that.” But he doesn’t end there, no. For this next line, I must quote directly from Jason Embry at the Austin American-Statesman“We don’t come here to be show horses,” Perry said at his fourth bill-signing press conference in the last week.

So, Sen. Davis is essentially admonished by the governor, who not only blames her for the need for a special legislative session — omitting the fact that both chambers dawdled with clearly less important legislation, such as the “noodling bill” — but stops just short of instructing her peers to take their frustrations out on her. And on the other hand, Rep. Thompson is lauded for standing up for women, and demanding that men do, too. And those who offended her are held accountable — to some extent, at least. The story is tied up with a nice little bow.

More people are talking about Wendy Davis than Senfronia Thompson. Could be the timing (Perry said the day after Thompson’s speech that he was “thinking about” running for president), or it could be that Davis’ story isn’t wrapped up with a neat bow. You can’t simply make apologies and get the Legislature to agree on school funding. The special session is on at 8 a.m., and as Sen. Steve Ogden put it: “It could get really interesting and contentious around here.”

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