Ten years ago this spring I was at the Texas State Capitol protesting the start of the Iraq War, and trying not to throw up, because I was newly pregnant.
This year, I find myself back at the pink granite dome protesting a different kind of war. Now, rather than harboring a walnut-sized, puke-inducing embryo in my body, I am the proud mother of a nine-year-old daughter who is big enough—I shit you not—to pick her mother up in the air and hold her there. And don’t assume, either, that I’m one of those whisper-thin wonder moms who magically produce healthy, robust children from hips the width of a Pez dispenser. No indeed. I weigh 130 pounds naked and starving. My daughter is a strong girl, and she’s going to be an even stronger woman.
She will need to be.
“Oh, are you going to the rally?” asked the young woman in the ladies’ room at work. She’d seen the orange T-shirt I was changing into. Yes, I told her; I was leaving work early to head over to the Capitol. Was she going too? “I am! Only I don’t have anything orange to wear,” she confided, then pointed to her bright auburn hair and said, “but my hair is orange!” I assured her she was born to attend this rally.
Orange signified that we believed in a woman’s right to control her own body before, during, and after pregnancy. Those who disagreed—supporters of a proposed law that would severely curtail access to legal abortion in Texas—would be wearing blue. I had mixed feelings about this visual segregation; it struck me as a good way to ensure that people on opposite sides of the controversy didn’t accidentally discover they had anything in common. But I own an orange shirt from my karate school, featuring two brawling ladies in Victorian dress and bearing the legend FIGHT LIKE A GIRL, which seemed germane to the discussion, so I wore it. When I climbed on the bus near campus, I saw a wall of orange shirts.
The short bus ride was like a miniature women’s caucus on wheels. “Did you hear what they just did in Ohio?” a twenty-something women standing in the aisle next to me spluttered to her companions. I didn’t hear their replies; I was trying to avoid being poked in the eye by her homemade protest sign (MY body, MY choice!). We disembarked into a carnival atmosphere on the capitol lawn, and strolled up the sidewalk past a cheerful protester handing out wire coat hangers.
The grounds were packed with entire orange-clad families: children, parents, and grandparents. There were teenagers, college students, and middle-aged ladies like myself; thousands of people, yet within minutes of arriving, I had met a black belt from my karate school who now lives in Scotland, the drummer in my band, and a woman who works down the hall from me. I met new people too. They complimented me on my shirt, and I took pictures of their signs.
I circulated through the crowd, hoping for a glimpse of the rumored counter-protesters, and finally spied two men in blue shirts holding a giant poster of a bloody fetus and staring grimly at the crowd. A steady trickle of orange-shirted people drifted over to stand in front of them, obscuring the picture by holding their own signs up in front of it. There was some maneuvering, and jostling, and words were exchanged, and then a contingent of mounted police rode up to impress everyone with the need for good behavior. Their horses wore Plexiglass eyeshields and looked embarrassed about it. One of the horses, with impeccable timing, took an enormous dump on the sidewalk right behind the blue-shirted men—an innovative community policing tactic that was remarkably effective in dispersing the crowd peacefully.
The image on the men’s sign, when I finally had a clear view of it, struck me as neither revolting nor tragic; merely sad, a reminder that the vast majority of life never makes it out of the starting gate. Those are the bitter odds. My sturdy, noisy, beautiful daughter was one of the lucky ones; she made it through the clump-of-nausea-inducing-tissue stage to full-fledge personhood. And I was lucky too; her presence in my body was planned, and welcomed, and didn’t endanger my life. Many other women aren’t so lucky.
Pregnancy is a transition, a time of overlap, when one organism gradually shapes another into something approaching independent existence. There are few clear-cut milestones on this journey; it is at one and the same time a miracle, and a complex, failure-prone mechanical process. Ten years ago when I stood on the Capitol steps holding a sign that said, MAKE SENSE, NOT WAR, my daughter was not yet a child. She was a possibility that might or might not have come to fruition; a sketch Nature had made on a cocktail napkin. My body had control over the long process of building her into a person, and therefore I believe my mind had a say in the matter as well.
Some people disagree. Inside the Capitol, more of the blue-shirted opposition were huddled together, praying, in the big, echo-laden rotunda. Many of them wore red tape over their mouths with the word LIFE printed on it. As the rally outside wound down, orange shirts began flooding into the building, and quickly outnumbered the blue. Someone started to sing “Amazing Grace,” and then someone else began chanting “Not the church! Not the state! Only we can decide our fate!” and from then on cacophony reigned in the rotunda.
Edging through the uproar, I saw a mother kneeling in prayer with her two small children, tears running down her face, the kids casting occasional puzzled looks around them but bowing their heads obediently. I was fascinated by all tightly clasped, prayerful hands among the blue-shirted; hands that gripped each other so tightly the knuckles stood out white against the flesh. What are you holding on to? I wondered. What are you so afraid to let go of?
I saw two older, blue-clad ladies with tape-sealed mouths and rosary-wrapped fingers, holding a banner that bore the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Their lips twitched behind the red tape as they silently mouthed Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I haven’t said the Rosary since my grandmother’s funeral; I’m not sure I’d remember how. I wondered what my grandmother would have thought of these two women. She prayed all the time, my grandmother did, but she would never, ever have put tape over her mouth. Nor would she have considered other women to be anything but fools for doing so. The women in my family called bullshit on the glorious martyrdom of motherhood generations ago. They lived at the mercy of a church that touted self-sacrifice as the highest feminine calling; they saw the results close up, and they had no trouble spotting the manipulative strings of male privilege attached to that ideal.
Part of me wanted to tell these women about my grandmother. Part of me wanted to tell them, “You’re the reason I left the church.” But I stayed silent. The red tape made it clear they weren’t interested in conversation, and I wasn’t interested in a walk-on role in their civic Passion Play. Nor would the chanting and the praying and the singing have made them any more likely to hear what I was trying to say.
But even the tumult in the rotunda couldn’t drown out the voices still echoing in my head from the week before; the voices of politicians pushing the law I and so many others were here to protest.
“Get them out!” Sen. Donna Campbell had shouted to security guards near the end of Sen. Wendy Davis’s filibuster against the legislation, as hundreds of women spoke out from the Senate gallery. “I want them out of here!”
“The louder they scream,” Gov. Rick Perry said of these women who resisted the government’s controlling hand on their most intimate body parts, “the more we know that we are getting something done.”
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called those who dared to open their tape-free mouths in such an unladylike way “an unruly mob.” He blamed “the media” for “inciting a riot,” and set his staffers to work reviewing video footage from the filibuster to see whom he could have arrested (nobody, as of this writing).
Rep. Jonathan Strickland, in a weirdly boastful interview, told reporters he had cowered inside his office until 1:30 a.m. after the filibuster, because protesters had “yelled threats and verbal abuse at him.” He claimed he’d received death threats on Facebook, and that his “favorite” threat was from “this female” who said she wanted to “pummel my face in.” (For the record: that was not me.) He also hinted that he’d be carrying a gun when the next special session began. “I very, very often do concealed-carry,” humble-bragged this pansy-assed politician who is terrified by the anger of women whom he wants to force to bear unwanted children.
“DO YOU SEE THE RAPE CULTURE HERE?” I had asked on Twitter after the filibuster, a cri de couer that evoked many sympathetic replies, as well as furious anger from the small but noisy corner of the Internet where condemnation of abortion, love of guns, and a fervent belief in pick-up artistry overlap. There’s no such thing as rape culture, these people advised. Abortion is wrong, because we say so. If you can’t see how simple it is, keep your mouth shut. I was surprised they didn’t offer me some red tape.
It can be dispiriting, seeing your government and fellow citizens’ enthusiasm for laws that will harm or kill thousands of women. It’s infuriating to hear the unapologetically sexist language they employ. But this fight—this noisy, ugly fight—is proof of something much more heartening to me, as a woman and as a mother: When democracy fails, community stands in the breach, and holds out its arms.
The protests in Texas are community in action—my community, one that values my body and my right to control it. The young women making their way to the protest with me, my long-time friends in the crowd, the stalwart ladies with their signs and coat hangers—if abortion were illegal and my daughter needed one, these are the people to whom I would turn. They wouldn’t clasp their hands and weep. They would take my hand. They would find ways help.
The fathers and grandfathers standing out in the hot Texas sun, with shirts saying WE WON’T GO BACK. The doctors and nurses whose expert testimony was ignored by lawmakers. Even the two mischievous young men who, during the House Committee hearings the night after the rally, procured a couple of fetching blue dresses and mingled ostentatiously with the blue-shirted crowd, reveling in the discomfort they caused. This gathering is a different kind of congress, one where we help and support each another instead of seeking to demonize, punish, and control. The protests have brought us together and the fight has forged bonds far stronger than mere friendship. Strangers send pizza and doughnuts to those waiting to testify. Room numbers, hearing times, and rule changes are broadcast instantly via a huge, informal social media network. Women comfort one another as they bear witness to past tragedies. Everyone reaching out, lifting up; intertwining our lives by choice.
This is the community I want my daughter to be a member of, the movement I want her to contribute her strength to. That we are standing in opposition to this or that lawmaker, one religion or another, is not important. What matters is that we stand together. We will not be held down. We are strong, and we will lift each other up.