Last Monday, April 4, former Texas state senator Wendy Davis visited Notre Dame to deliver a talk entitled “Rising Up: From Single Mom to Harvard Law, how every woman stands to make a difference.” This event was sponsored by College Democrats, the Gender Studies Program, BridgeND, Women in Politics, and the Progressive Student Alliance.
Davis began her talk telling her story as well as the stories of other women in her family. When she was ten, her parents divorced, and her mother, who only had a tenth grade education, had to enter the workforce to provide for the family.
When Davis was eighteen, she became pregnant and subsequently married her boyfriend. However, shortly after, the two divorced, and Davis started working to provide for herself and her daughter.
“Before I found out I was pregnant, I had dreams of going to college,” Davis said. “But this derailed my dream, at least temporarily.”
While working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office, Davis discovered the possibility of taking classes at the community college to be trained as a paralegal. Davis cited her access to the local Planned Parenthood clinic, and the contraceptive counseling she received there, as essential to her later career.
“I am absolutely sure that without my access to that healthcare, that reproductive piece of healthcare that I received there, it’s very likely that I would have found myself with a second unplanned pregnancy,” Davis noted. “And it’s very likely that that would have derailed that very journey that I was on at the time.”
Davis lamented the 2011 efforts in Texas to defund Planned Parenthood and said between 150,000 and 180,000 people lost access to family planning clinics because of it.
She argued that it is essential to support women’s autonomy in every sense, including “reproductive rights,” which gained applause from the crowd.
“I think it’s very important as we have these conversations about women realizing equal opportunity in this country, that we necessarily put together the important connection between reproductive autonomy and economic opportunity in this country,” Davis asserted.
She then reminisced about her 13-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate of a bill that sought to ban abortion after twenty weeks. She received thousands of personal stories of women praising abortion and “reproductive rights.” Davis used these stories to argue that lawmakers should not be able to make any woman’s decision to abort her child.
Despite her efforts, the bill ultimately passed.
Davis concluded her talk by urging students to stand up for what they believe, even when it is difficult. “So I would encourage you keep up that work, continue to fight for the principles in which you’ve organize from,” she advised.
Candida Moss, Professor of Theology, moderated the question-and-answer period. Before the talk, students could send in questions, and Moss selected what questions to ask Davis.
Davis explained the importance for every woman to be a feminist and how being a woman negatively affected her run for governor. During the campaign, Davis claimed to have been criticized for being a woman, which influenced her loss.
After several more questions, Moss asked Davis about her stance on abortion because many questions had been submitted on this topic.
When asked when she believes life begins and when she believes it should be protected, Davis responded, “I think that the Supreme Court has made that decision for us.”
She claimed the answer to this question is a personal choice and should be made individually.
“The issue on this topic is not to impose our ideas on other people and particularly where we may not understand a situation that that person is facing and why they’re making the decision that they are,” she said.
Davis continued by relating her own choice to abort her child. During a “very much wanted pregnancy,” Davis was told her daughter had a type of fetal brain abnormality.
“I made a decision out of love, and that was my decision to make. It wasn’t a decision for a legislator to make for me,” Davis claimed.
Gender Studies, a co-sponsor of the event and a university academic program, cited open dialogue as a reason for promoting the event.
Mary Celeste Kearney, the Director of the Program, told the Rover, “Our Program agreed to co-sponsor this event because we believe it is important for Notre Dame students and faculty to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and to have an opportunity to discuss and debate them. In particular, we are hopeful that Davis’s talk allows our community to consider more carefully the role of women in politics.”
Up until the day of the event, the Program advertised the event on its webpage, lauding Davis for her “historic filibuster.” An email sent out by the Political Science Department from College Democrats included the same event description.
“She skyrocketed to near celebrity status after her historic 13-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate to stop a legislative effort that would have dramatically reduced women’s access to healthcare services in her state,” read the advertisement. “Wendy Davis, a modern-day Texas heroine, appeared on the national scene as a State Senator during her 2013 filibuster that temporarily blocked devastating legislation seeking to limit women’s access to abortions and reproductive healthcare in the state of Texas.”
The advertisement was removed from the Gender Studies website on the day of the event. When asked why the event had been taken down, the Gender Studies Program declined to comment.
College Democrats, BridgeND, and the Progressive Student Alliance also ignored requests for comment.
Third-year law student Mary Mangan organized a group of students to hand out fliers with the Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception after the talk.
“Former Senator Wendy Davis presented a reductive view of the human person, and especially of women, in her talk,” Mangan told the Rover. “Her message that access to abortion is necessary for women to achieve success in their education and careers is harmful, because it suggests that women’s success is opposed to their children’s lives.”
Hailey Vrdolyak is a senior political science and theology major who enjoys making up random titles to articles before they are modified. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Candida Moss serves as faculty advisor for the College Democrats. The College Democrats’ faculty advisor is Carolina Arroyo.