The XX Factor

Abortion Battle Is a Reminder That Texas Liberals Exist

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth) holds up two fingers against the anti-abortion bill SB5.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Beyond just being amazing political drama—the Dallas Morning News says the crowd at the Capitol may be the largest in Texas history—Tuesday’s filibuster and protests of a draconian anti-abortion bill served as a nice reminder that Texas really isn’t the Atwood-esque right-wing nightmare that outsiders often imagine it is. Oh, it’s bad, alright. Not only do Republicans have a supermajority in the state legislature and a death grip on the governor’s mansion, but the religious right dominates the Republican Party in a way that’s unprecedented in the state’s history. And yet the state also has a proud, liberal streak in it, one that came rushing out in the form of protesters and hard-hitting Democrats like Sen. Wendy Davis. 

Davis particularly is a type that is well-known to Texans and goes way back in its history: Brassy Texas broads who are as tenacious and progressive as their hair is impeccable. Think Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards, and Molly Ivins. (Richards’ daughter Cecile is the head of Planned Parenthood and was in Texas to show her support.) Davis also is tuned into the long history of Texas Democrats using high theatrics to make their point. The pink sneakers she wore during the filibuster on Tuesday aren’t even her best debating accessory. Davis wore a Texas Christian University football helmet onto the Senate floor during the passing of her first bill in 2009

Having to beat back right-wing Christians who are obsessed with controlling sexuality is a burden lady liberals of Texas have long born with humor and gumption. This entire ordeal reminds me of one of my all-time favorite exchanges in the Texas legislature, now 20 years old, when Rep. Warren Chisum pushed to expand the sodomy ban, which only applied to gays at the time, to heterosexuals. Rep. Debra Danburg decided to make him defend himself in an exchange that frankly never stops being funny, even though it ends with Chisum suggesting that people who have anal sex deserve to be executed. A selection, courtesy of the Austin Chronicle:

“Mr. Chisum, you’re trying to make it criminal even between the opposite sex, even if they are married?” Danburg asked.

“Especially if they are married,” he replied. “I can’t believe anyone would do that if they were married.”

Their squabble escalated.

“If my husband and I were having sex and it touched my anus, do I need to go turn myself in to some health official?” Danburg asked.

“I suggest your husband goes to see a doctor about his aim,” Chisum replied.

Liberal women in Texas have been fighting this fight for a very long time, and they know how to do it.

This abortion debacle, like the great dildo wars and fights over sodomy laws before it, demonstrates the deep divides that characterize Texas politics. While the primary system means the Republicans who control the state are wholly owned by the hard right—something Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst learned recently when he failed to out-right-wing Ted Cruz in the Republican primary for Senate—Texas has plenty of liberal strongholds. It’s not just Austin, the famously liberal capital, either. All the major cities in Texas and most of the counties bordering Mexico also vote heavily Democratic, as this electoral map from 2012 shows:

Texas will likely stay Republican in the near future, but the long run is more up for grabs. Despite its rednecky image, Texas is incredibly racially diverse, one out of only five states in the country where whites are actually in a minority. As the rolls of voters of color swell, the hard-right politics-as-usual will be harder to defend. This week’s abortion debate may just be a taste of what’s to come, especially as it has emboldened these often quiet ranks of Texas liberals.