"Look at all these people," murmured a woman to her friend as they sought out their table amongst hundreds of others in the Grand Ballroom on the fourth floor of the Hilton Americas. The ballroom was filled nearly to capacity, grilled chicken breasts and chocolate tarts topped with red, heart-shaped cookies waiting at each place for the thousands spending their Valentine's Day at a luncheon supporting Planned Parenthood. "Where were all these folks on Election Day?"
Over 2,300 people registered for the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast event honoring the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that extended 14th Amendment protections to women seeking abortions. "Standing Strong with Texas Women" was the name given to the luncheon, but could easily be applied to the atmosphere itself: "This is the largest Planned Parenthood event in history," remarked Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Among the throng of attendees were prominent local politicians—Mayor Sylvester Turner and former mayor Annise Parker included—in addition to the woman responsible for the Roe v. Wade decision in the first place: Sarah Weddington, the Abilene-born attorney who argued the 1973 case in front of the Supreme Court at only 26 years old (and who remains the youngest lawyer to ever successfully argue a Supreme Court case).
They were there not only in support of Roe v. Wade, but the 100-year-old organization which provides access to abortions and a whole host of other health care services for men and women alike—an organization whose merits were presented by none other than Wendy Davis. Davis is best known as the former Texas Senator and gubernatorial candidate who famously filibustered Texas Senate Bill 5 in 2013, which aimed to create additional restrictions around abortions in Texas. Three years later, the Supreme Court found that parts of the law were unconstitutional in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, but it was Wendy Davis's 11-hour filibuster (while clad in bright pink running shoes) that focused the nation's attention on women's reproductive rights in Texas.
"Between 120,000 and 180,000 women lost their access to health care" during those combative years between Texas Senate Bill 5, the similarly contentious House Bill 2 and the 2016 Supreme Court decision, Davis said from her ballroom dais. In that time, over half the state's abortion clinics were shut down, while 80 of Planned Parenthood's non-abortion clinics also had to close their doors. "Teen pregnancy, which had been on the decline, began increasing again. And worst of all, the maternal death rate in Texas doubled. It is now higher than that of any other developed country in the entire world."
"That," emphasized Davis, "is not pro-life."
Between statistics and Lady Bird Johnson quotes, Davis speech rallied the crowd to continue fighting for women's equality in the workplace in addition to continued access to affordable health care, childcare and education. She acknowledged her own struggles identifying as a feminist in her early years as a politician, only later realizing she'd achieved her own ambitions—being the first in her family to graduate from college, earning her law degree from Harvard—thanks to the path blazed for her by women who came before. And she offered evidence of the positive economic impact women have had on our own national economy, telling a cheering crowd: "It is right, it is moral and it is imperative for this country that women are equalized at every level."
Davis finished her speech by encouraging attendees to get involved at a local level, whether by supporting women's organizations that matter to them or running for office, something Davis herself didn't do until she was 33 years old. Her words echoed President Barack Obama's farewell address, in which he called on Americans to "grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself," a basic tenet of a well-functioning democratic society dating all the way back to Aristotle, for whom being a good citizen was "defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office."
"What are you willing for fight for even if the odds are against you?" Davis asked an energized crowd. Once she departed the stage, the answer was clear as the room joined together in chanting: "When birth control is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When LGBT rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!"