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Wendy Davis Wants to Get More Young Women Interested in Politics

Talking with the former Texas state senator about her new project, Deeds Not Words

It’s been nearly three years since Wendy Davis stood in the Texas State Capitol and filibustered an abortion bill for 11 hours straight, buoyed by her pink sneakers, a back brace, and the knowledge that there were so many women outside the chamber watching her fight and cheering. The bill eventually passed, Davis later lost a gubernatorial bid, and she is now out of politics for the first time in decades. Throughout all of that, however, she’s proven that she’s more than willing to keep trying to get things done — even when the chance of victory seems to be slim — and to encourage others to do the same.

That philosophy seems to drive Deeds Not Words, a nonprofit Davis started that hopes to connect young women interested in politics and policy with organizations devoted to issues like equal pay, campus sexual assault, paid leave, and, of course, reproductive rights. According to Davis, the group, which officially launches in May, will also set up campus charters at 10 yet-to-be-announced universities and colleges, and will release a weekly email newsletter. Davis spoke with MTV News about her new endeavor and, of course, those legendary pink kicks.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

You’ve only put out broad outlines of what Deeds Not Words is, and I was wondering about the thought process that led you to decide to make this organization your first big thing after your gubernatorial campaign.

Wendy Davis: One was, I finished the campaign and was thinking about what I was going to do next. I knew I wanted to continue to play a role, in some shape or form, in trying to help realize the goal of gender equality in this country, so I started meeting with a number of organizations in that space. And I realized, as I was navigating my way through that, I was finding out about a lot of organizations I had never heard of, even though I considered myself pretty richly embedded in that world. So I knew that if I hadn’t heard of them, it was likely that most people hadn’t either. And I started looking at their digital footprint, and many of them were quite small.

At the same time, I was traveling the country, speaking to a variety of organizations, and I was met with a continuing enthusiasm from young women. I realized I had the privilege to be able to speak and work with young women, as someone they looked up to and could get advice from. And I had so many young women asking me what to do.

How do you plan on specifically getting women — especially poor women or women of color, who have never gotten involved in advocacy and don’t have a lot of time — involved?

Davis: I think the idea that many people have — that making a difference means doing some monumental thing — is an impediment, and it’s something I want to try to help break through. I know, having come from a background of being a single mom, living in poverty, going to school, I didn’t know how to use my voice, and I honestly didn’t think I had the time or the privilege to be able to use it. But if someone had reached out to me, if someone on social media had been around at the time, and I'd felt like there was some little thing I could do, that might have been helpful, I would like to think I would have done it.

Did you quickly learn after you got into politics that there’s an entirely different world of sexism that you encounter as a woman with ambition?

Davis: I realized pretty quickly, both in the city council and state senate experiences, that as a woman I had to be more prepared, know more, understand more, and push harder to accomplish the things that I wanted to accomplish than most of my male colleagues did. And at the end of the day, I accepted that and simply functioned that way. I found that as long as I was prepared, and I knew what I was talking about and was forceful, I could be very, very effective. But I couldn’t show up halfway and expect to get something done.

Was there a specific moment you remember when you realized that sexism and stereotypes about women existed?

Davis: I can point to different situations along the way where I felt that, but I don’t know if there was an aha moment. I remember very clearly, on the senate floor one day I was engaged in a parliamentary debate with a fellow senator, a man, and we were debating this point with the parliamentarian and the governor, and my male colleague literally breathed down the back of my neck and through gritted teeth said, "Don’t talk to me like that, little lady." It was such a shocking kind of moment — that I wasn’t just being perceived as an opponent locked in a parliamentary debate, I was being perceived as a female opponent, locked in a parliamentary debate where I didn’t know my place.

Why do politicians still treat women as a special interest when they make up a majority of voters?

Davis: Women care about issues that transcend gender, just like people of color care about issues that transcend people of color, of course. Do we want an economy that works well for all of us? Absolutely. Do we want personal safety for our families and the opportunity for our kids to go to college affordably? Absolutely. None of that is unique to being female.

However, there’s no question that being female in this country today means being less than. It’s important that those issues that may be of unique concern to us are lifted up and promoted and fought for in a way that we haven’t seen before. It should not be the case that 95 years after we gained the right to vote in this country, we still do not have equal pay. We still do not have paid family leave laws that every other industrialized country in the world has. We still see women’s reproductive autonomy being treated with hostility. And we still see gender stereotypes and misogyny hurled at women at every level in this country.

The word "feminism" still has a loaded meaning — especially in some of the areas around the country waging the biggest battles over the issues you’re talking about.

Davis: Part of winning this battle is to destigmatize the word "feminism." The word "feminism" is nothing more than to believe that women are equal, and that we should be treated equally in the education arena and the career arena and the domestic arena. There’s nothing controversial about that. And anyone who believes that’s controversial, in my opinion, is very shortsighted and quite narrow-minded. I’m not going to apologize for being a feminist or believing in feminism, and I’m delighted to see more and more women coming to embrace fully what that means, and why they should be proud to define themselves in that way.

One of the knocks that lots of millennial women get from people who have been fighting on these issues for a long time is that they aren’t getting involved because they don’t understand what’s at stake. Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who also chairs the Democratic National Committee, told the New York Times Magazine a few months ago that she thought there was a "complacency in the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided." Do you agree with that?

Davis: I think sometimes our friends can be our own worst enemies, as the saying goes. No, I don’t agree with that. I think we are shaped by the life experiences we have. I came up at a time when reproductive rights had been secured by the time it made a difference in my life. And honestly, I wouldn’t have been engaged in a conversation about reproductive rights if I hadn’t started to see them unwind, and if I hadn’t seen, from my personal experiences, how important those rights had been to me.

It’s important for us to share with younger women our experiences, the lens through which we see things, to help shape their understanding and appreciation of where we are. But it works the other way too. It’s important for us to hear things through the experiences of younger women so that we can be a part of shaping the hopes and dreams of that generation. This is a partnership, and it should never be looked at as my generation versus a younger generation.

Have you gotten used to not being an elected official yet?

Davis: I think the answer to that now is yes. It took some time, I’ll admit. I’ve said before that my moment of feeling grief didn’t come as a consequence of losing the gubernatorial race, as much as it came in January 2015 when the state legislature reconvened and I was no longer on the Senate floor. That was very hard for me. Now I would say I have adjusted. I’m growing into that adjustment every single day, and hopefully through the impact that will happen through these networks, I’ll learn that this is really where my path is meant to take me.

Why do you think your pink sneakers were such a potent symbol?

Davis: I guess because they were a bit unexpected. Normally when we’re on the floor of a legislative assembly, we aren’t wearing tennis shoes, and we certainly aren’t wearing ones that are pink. I wish I could take credit for being thoughtful and thinking of them as a symbol — I wasn’t, it was an afterthought. As I ran out the door, I was thinking maybe I needed something more supportive than the shoes that were on my feet, and they just happened to be pink because that was the color that had been available at the running store a couple months prior when I bought them.

How often do people still bring them up?

Davis: A lot. Almost everywhere I travel to give a speech, I can usually depend on at least one person to say, "Where are your pink sneakers?" They came to symbolize a day, and a moment, of women fighting for something. So they’re very special to me, as you can imagine, and I’ll treasure them always. I will hopefully pass them down to my granddaughter, who will be coming along in the next week or two.

When you think about your soon-to-be-arriving granddaughter, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far that you’d want to make sure you instill in her?

Davis: I would love to see her grow up in a world where she was completely free of experiences that revealed gender stereotypes. But I’m not that naïve. I know she’s going to grow up in that world. What I hope for her is that she’s surrounded by people who help her navigate her way through that as successfully as possible. And to position her with as much confidence in her capabilities as anyone who is male might have.

Are you feeling optimistic or intimidated by everything you have to accomplish?

Davis: Both [laughs]. Optimistic, certainly; I’m so excited to see the incredibly robust conversation about equal pay that took place this week on Equal Pay Day. We are gaining momentum in this conversation, and I feel like we are at a tipping point. If I can play some small role in tipping that balance in the right direction, I’m really excited about doing it.