Wendy Davis Launches a New Political Group for Young Activists: “Deeds, Not Words”

Former Texas Senator Wendy Davis. Photo by Alison Narro.

Three years after Wendy Davis filibustered for 11 hours straight against new, sweeping abortion restrictions, the Texas Democrat is launching a new organization that aims to help young women create concrete political change. The group, Deeds Not Words, takes its name from an early-20th-century suffragist slogan used by women pushing to demand action from politicians who promised change someday in the future. Davis’s organization aims to be a “digital hub” connecting young activists with existing organizations that work on gender equality issues.

Davis says that since her filibuster and her 2014 campaign for Texas governor, she has spoken with many young women across the country, and the same question keeps coming up: “What can we do?” There are already lots of sites geared toward getting people involved in politics generally, like MoveOn.org and Rock the Vote. What will make Deeds Not Words unique is its specific focus on gender equality, says Davis, and its goal to connect young women to concrete actions. Among other projects, the site will host a national calendar of events related to gender equality and downloadable toolkits for activists working on various issues.

Deeds Not Words had a soft launch at SXSW this year and officially kicks into action tomorrow, May 18.

The homepage of Wendy Davis's new political engagement organization, Deeds Not Words.

SARAH MIRK: Voter turnout among young people is always frustratingly low—in 2014, just 21 percent of Americans age 18-29 actually voted. How do you think progressive organizations have overlooked or dismissed young women in past elections? What can we do differently?

WENDY DAVIS: A lot of incredible organizations that have been on the ground for a long time working to advance progressive causes have not retooled and reexamined the way that they communicate—the language they use, the audience they reach out to. I do feel a unique opportunity because I have a strong audience of young women to communicate with…. I want to reach out to them where they are. I don’t want to ask them to plug into an old, staid way of doing things but instead [want to] take a fresh approach and to be empowering in a way that…celebrates who millennial women are. I think it’s really important when you come from my generation to think of it as a passing or a sharing of that torch. It takes each of our generations to continue that work of gender equality, and I want to make sure we’re encouraging that young generation to be part of this work as much as possible. In our newsletter each week, we’re going to be highlighting a change-maker, a young woman in the U.S. who we can all look at and model our own behavior after. We want to highlight some ordinary, everyday things young women are doing to use their voice and use their power.

Sometimes when I’m talking to older people, they are very critical of the political involvement of young people today. I get asked questions like, “Why aren’t young people political these days?” So it’s nice to hear what you’re saying about how young women have so many strengths and political passions. What do you see as those strengths that young women have that are different than their parents’ generation? What are you seeing that is different and powerful?

I think that the level of understanding, the acute awareness that young women have about the political, economic, and social landscape of the U.S., is quite unique. When I was in my late teens, early 20s, I was focused on survival. I wasn’t focusing on the bigger picture around me. What I see with this generation is a generation that cares about all the same things I cared about at that age—getting an education, starting a family someday, being able to own a home—but…equally important with all that is making a difference in the world. I think that’s remarkable. I think it creates an opportunity to help to channel that enthusiasm through some realizable goals.

The Women's Social and Political Union in 1908, beneath a “Deeds Not Words” banner. (Creative Commons)

Wendy, you and I both want politics to be inspiring. But so much of politics is about failure. In Texas, even though you filibustered for 11 hours against those bills, they still passed. And then you ran for governor but didn’t get elected. That is so often the story of politics in the United States: incremental change that feels like two steps forward, one step back. Despite all the hard work we do, problems persist. Are you feeling frustrated these days? How do you deal with those times when you feel overwhelmed? I feel like a lot of young women are going to get apathetic about the political system—especially during this election—and say, “There’s nothing we can do.”

It’s easy to gravitate toward a feeling of frustration. But we have to fight that. We can’t give into it. Because when we do, we surely fail; our goal to create a world where women are equal to men in all respects surely fails. Even in the face of our losses, I try to look at the important progress we make. I’ll use my gubernatorial race as an example. I have so many young women around the country who say to me, “I was inspired to do X because of you.” To know that you can take action and do something that creates a ripple effect, that’s huge. That’s why we try, even in the face of failure. I wrote a little essay for the Lenny newsletter a couple months ago about losing and how there’s so much value in fighting valiantly for what we really care about, and not fearing the consequence, but embracing the work itself and embracing the opportunity to advance a message. No hard things happen overnight. We each have an opportunity to advance that ball a little bit.

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That’s nice to hear. Going into this election season, I’m like, “How am I going to cope with six months of Donald Trump?” So any coping advice you have would be appreciated.

We gotta keep a sense of humor about these things. I’m just excited we have an opportunity to demonstrate the stark difference between the candidate that the Democrats will advance and the candidate that the Republicans are advancing. We should see it that way: It’s an opportunity to show our progressive goals will move us forward as a country versus the conversation that we’re hearing on the Republican side which, of course, is about taking us back.

I want to talk a bit about social media and political identity. How do you feel like all the activism and conversation on social media have shaped your ideas of the political system? And how do you see social media shaping the political identities of young women?

I’ll start with the second piece of that. The awareness and understanding that so many young people have about the economic, social, and political world really has been a consequence of the ability to communicate in such a broad and wide way through social media. It’s a game-changer. People have the opportunity to inform each other and we’re not left to rely strictly on news outlets that may filter their news through a certain perspective. There’s a tremendous power in it.

But one of the things that I think we need to make sure we do is move our conversations into action. There are powerful communication tools at our disposal today through social media, and it’s our responsibility to take what we learn and turn that into an action that helps make a difference. That’s where the name of our organization developed, borrowing from a motto that was in the suffragette movement: women who were tired of talk and wanted action, the right to vote. I think we’re stuck in that spot a little bit today. There’s a lot of talk. And it’s powerful, it’s important, and I’m so grateful that it’s there. But in some ways, it leaves us feeling like we’ve done something when we engage on social media, when really we need that extra little step to have an impact.

How about the first part of that question? How has engaging with social media impacted how you think about politics and your own political identity?

It’s definitely informed me. I’m so grateful to have the ability to check in every day on Twitter and read the perspectives that other people bring to the table. I find myself going down these rabbit holes, reading article after article. It informs me in a different way than reading the paper every day. I know for a fact that the day of the filibuster that I did in Texas would never [have] become what it did if not for people sharing it on social media. And what was great is that sharing did result in action, it resulted in people being informed about what was going on in the capitol, people showing up in the thousands at the capitol, and the people owning the power of taking that filibuster past the midnight deadline that night. They literally showed up and cried out with all their might against injustice. That’s the real power that social media offers for us.

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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1 Comment Has Been Posted


I'd just like to say to Wendy, women in Texas love you and we wish you were governor. It's a huge mess now. It's just awful.

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