A Conversation With Wendy Davis

It was such an honor to interview former Texas senate member, Wendy Davis, for BUST. She’s a badass woman who speaks her mind and advocates for human rights. There was a time when she couldn’t imagine public speaking would be a regular part of her life, but she moved past that fear because she knew the fight was too important. Davis’s biggest goal these days is to encourage other women and girls to do the same.

Here’s my interview:

There’s no denying that Wendy Davis’s confidence, courage, and devotion to feminist ideals have been an inspiration to countless young women across the nation. Now, the ridiculously badass former Texas senator is taking her influence a step further: Davis—who once performed an 11 hour filibuster to prevent a bill restricting women’s access to abortion—just launched Deeds Not Words, a project devoted entirely to getting young women actively involved with issues of gender equality.

I talked to Davis about the goals of her new organization, why it’s so important that women gain more political representation, and what a huge effing deal it is to see a woman so close to the presidency.

What would you like to see Deeds Not Words accomplish in the next few years?

If my wildest dreams could come true, I would look out five years from now and I would see a much larger percentage of young women weighing in on all things gender equality. We would see women voting in numbers that were much more commensurate with their population, we would see young women stepping forward and crying out in a very public way against those politicians and private entities that are not abiding by principles of gender equality, and we would begin to see women on a much more common, day-to-day basis pushing back when they see misogyny in the public space.

How will Deeds Not Words help make that happen?

Obviously for all of those things to come true, young women have to play a part in making it a reality. And my role is to encourage them and connect them with ways they can do it. I’ve been working on these issues for some time now, and I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two not just about how to be effective in the conversation but also why it’s so important that we are a part of this conversation. There are a lot of young women that ask me how to plug in. They care about a number of issues in the gender equality space, but they’re not sure how they can contribute to moving those things forward. And that’s where Deeds Not Words comes in. We want very much to provide young women with ideas of how they can get involved that are tangible and real.

How does the Deeds Not Words site work?

The website functions as a hub, and it will continue to evolve in the coming months to become an even more powerful tool than it is now. Right now its main function is to connect young women to organizations doing amazing work, whether that work is with reproductive rights or economic justice or sexual assault prevention. Ultimately, we want this to be a network that connects young women to on-the-ground campaigns. I know that when I can show up, and speak up, and feel as though I am fighting for something that matters to me, it feels better to me than signing a petition. Petitions are definitely important, and you’ll see suggested petitions to sign on the site, but when we are invited to move an issue forward, on the ground, that to me feels like the most powerful way of all that we can get involved. And I know young women are anxious to be involved in that way, and that they’re waiting to be asked.

As a young woman who graduated college four years ago, I’ve struggled at times to stay connected to the feminist causes I was once so active with. I think it’s easy for any young person to get distracted by bills, relationships, career decisions, and life in general. What advice do you have for young women like me who want to stay involved with these issues that we sometimes put on the backburner, but really do affect our day-to-day lives so strongly?

I think the most powerful way to feel like you’re still playing a part is by becoming part of an organization that’s doing work that you care about. I know that when I was younger, there was a time when I got so consumed with school and work and family that these other things weren’t a part of my world, and it took some time for me to find my way back into it. To get reconnected, I suggest looking for organizations that are doing work that you appreciate and reaching out to them to see how you can help. Let them know if you have a few hours a week or a few hours a month, and ask “How can you use my time? How can you use my energy?” I guarantee these organizations will take advantage of that. And if you’re not sure how to get started, the Deeds Not Words site hosts a variety of organizations you can get in touch with.

On a slightly different note, you’re a strong Hillary supporter. What do you think it would mean to our country to have a female president?

I don’t think we’re talking about this enough. Getting a woman into the White House is literally monumental. I think we’re gliding past that in some ways and we need to bring ourselves back to the awareness of why this is so important. We cannot expect for our issues, our concerns, our day-to-day experiences, to be carried by someone who hasn’t lived them. The whole idea behind reflective democracy is to have people in office who understand and mirror a variety of experiences. And yes, we’ve had people who are friendly on gender equality issues, but we haven’t ever had anyone whose had a passion to move them forward in a way that needs to happen. I feel like we’re stuck in this freeze-frame in time where we got to a certain place and not only did we stop there, but we also started moving backwards in some ways. The only way to get past that hump is to put someone in office who brings a passion on these issues, which I think Hillary Clinton does.

What are some of the most important things that you think Hillary will do for women in our country?

She’s been talking about a lot of different things she’s going to do, but moving forward with family leave policy and equality of pay are important parts of her plan. And affordable quality childcare, which is not only about making sure that our youngest and most vulnerable have a good head start in the world, but also making sure that their mothers can get on a good career path or go back to school to improve themselves and increase their earning capacity. Increasing minimum wage impacts everyone, but it especially impacts women because we represent two thirds of minimum wage workers in the country. At the end of the day, her message is about improving women’s lives so that we improve all lives and that message is very, very important. When we provide women with the opportunity to be equalized and to earn more, we are ultimately stimulating our economy. This isn’t just about making sure women are treated fairly, and it’s not necessarily coming from a place of disdain about feeling like we’re treated less-than; it’s more about empowering women because it makes us a better, stronger country when we do.

Most of the time, we agree with political candidates about a lot of issues, but also disagree with some of their history and policies. How do we reconcile these mixed feelings and align ourselves with someone who might not fully represent us?

We can’t expect to find the perfect candidate. It’s going to be very rare for us to find someone that winds up with us one hundred percent of the time. But I think we’re doing very well if the person we’ve elected is on our side about the things that matter most to us. It alarms me when I hear people say if my candidate doesn’t win, I’m going to sit this one out. I’m going to say now, as a strong Hillary supporter, that if she didn’t emerge from the primary for some unknown reason, I would line up behind Bernie so fast your head would spin. This is about making sure we don’t have someone there who’s going to further erode the progress we’ve made as a country.

Any books that have inspired you lately?

I really enjoyed the book I read recently about Ruth Bader Ginsburg [Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik]. She’s just such an incredible role model and completely unapologetic about who she is and what she stands for. She’s a great inspiration to draw from.

Things Encountered On A Hot Morning Walk To The Park

Dog shit, purple flowers that look like giant fluffy dandelions in a Dr. Seuss book, a baby in a sunhat so loose it falls over her big brown eyes, a man letting his dog’s tongue lap water straight from the metal fixture on the public drinking fountain, unrelenting sunshine, apartment buildings that resemble castles with their giant oak doors and stone archways, dog shit covered in flies that scatter as I pass by, a smashed cockroach on concrete steps, a black squirrel who freezes in his tracks as I get closer and then darts up a tree, a woman on the phone saying “there’s just something about her that rubs me the wrong way,” a glare at my close-mouthed smile as I pass a stranger, flies buzzing around spilling black bags of garbage, a woman in workout clothes alternately running and walking up a hill as she loudly sings to half the music coming through her headphones, the joyful incredulity I still feel when I realize I live in New York City, dog shit, the urge to rip my sweaty bra off and throw it into a bush, a man trying to convince a woman on a bench that his three-year-old absolutely loves avocado, a tiny dog that looks like Chewbacca and is shaved everywhere but his head, the desire to write something that isn’t terrible, a young man with a Scottish accent who scares the shit out of me when he sprints towards my back and asks for a dollar, lilacs, the fresh scent of lilacs, a wide view of the deep blue Hudson River reaching north as I round the bend, a stranger who smiles back, the cooling shadows of trees who have lived here much longer than I have, leaves that dance between shades of green in the sunlight, a garden bursting with a rainbow of fragrant flowers, a giggling toddler smelling of sweet coconut sunscreen, and more dog shit that smells like dog shit.

I Was A (Terrified) Commencement Speaker, And Here’s What I Said

A couple of months ago, one of my college professors got in touch with me to see if I’d be willing to speak at my alma mater’s graduation ceremony. Even though it was just for the small group of Women’s Studies graduates and their families, I couldn’t help but find the offer laughable. I felt ridiculously under-qualified for a lot of reasons: I only graduated four years ago, I work in the financial industry (hardly an obvious use of my Women’s Studies degree), and public speaking is one of my biggest fears. I try to write as much as I can, often about women’s issues, but I still haven’t found a way to make it lucrative or produce as much content as I’d like. I typed this out with brutal honesty in my response to my professor, in the hopes that she would come to her senses and find someone with more experience. As I queasily awaited her reply, I tried my hardest not to envision a reality when I’d have to get in front of the 130 person crowd and attempt to be insightful and inspiring.

It turned out she still thought I had something to offer, and I knew it was one of those terrifying opportunities I couldn’t turn down without feeling like a complete coward for years to come. I spent weeks writing and rewriting my speech. I can’t remember how many times I cried, which is probably a good thing, because it was definitely more than I’d like to admit. It took me a long time to realize what I wanted to say and to figure out how to say it. But I’m so happy that the work resulted in something I’m proud of and that students let me know did comfort them. Take my word for it: If I could be a keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony, despite the incredible level of anxiety public speaking gives me and the general average-ness of my life to date, I promise you that the seemingly impossible things you’d love to do are plausible. All it takes is a willingness to step outside your comfort zone:

Good morning and congratulations to you, the class of 2016. When I was invited to do this, I have to say, I was not surprised. Since graduating four years ago, I’ve become an extremely successful, highly impressive individual, who is no doubt on track to achieving her wildest dreams. I’ve also amassed tons of public speaking experience at prestigious conferences and lectures around the world. So strap in and prepare for one of those graduation speeches they make a book out of.

I’m totally kidding – I haven’t done any of those things. And I could not have been more shocked, or more afraid, when I was offered this opportunity. Not only do I feel entirely lacking in wisdom, I’m also terrified of public speaking. So unstrap, re-buckle, and prepare to feel uncomfortable with me.

Truly, though, I am honored to be here. The one advantage I have over people with more experience is that I remember what it was like to be sitting where you’re sitting now. I remember being excited and afraid of what would happen next. I remember feeling at once anxious and invigorated about the fact that I didn’t have a plan, and that for the first time, my plan would truly be all my own.

When I was graduating, I had a lot of vague ideas about what my future “should” look like. I’d tried to make concrete plans throughout my senior year, but they had either fallen through or I had decided against them. As each plan dissolved, I realized that it wasn’t really what I wanted at all. Mostly, I just wanted the comfort of knowing what would happen next.  

But by the time it was finals, I had no idea what my life would look like after school. All I knew was I that I needed to find a job, and I hoped that job would involve the vague concept of improving the world. I couldn’t wait to get past the anxiety of landing that elusive job. I assumed that once the interview was over, and I settled into the routine of working, I would feel comfortable.

Looking back, I’m not sure there’s anything I could have told that version of myself that would have convinced her it would be more valuable to get well-acquainted with “uncomfortable” than to seek the impossible—and boring—feeling of comfort.

Honestly, I think my real understanding of that only could have come from the place it did—raw experience.

Since graduating, discomfort has become one of my closest friends. At first I didn’t like her, but maybe that was just because we didn’t truly know each other yet. Don’t get me wrong, we’d spent a lot of time together over the years. But it wasn’t the kind of quality, one-on-one time staring into each other’s eyes that kindles a real connection. That didn’t start until I was at home with my parents, aimlessly searching for jobs online, and wondering what the hell I was going to do next.

Sending endless applications into the vast sea of the internet didn’t get me the job I imagined. It actually didn’t get me any job at all. But it did show me that spending a lot of time at home on my computer, waiting and wishing for something to happen, made me anxious, overwhelmed, and unhappy. So I went back to my old summer job making minimum wage as an office assistant, and signed up for a volunteer training to be an advocate at a local women’s shelter.

After gigs as a camp counselor and then a waitress–taken mostly out of fear of being idle–I was told about a paid position opening up at the shelter. Even though it was for the overnight shift, I went for it, because as unpleasant as it sounded, it seemed worth it to do something I cared about. And in retrospect, it was absolutely the right decision and one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. But at the time, not seeing daylight, dealing with issues in my family, and witnessing my clients’ pain without really being able to talk to anyone about it, made those six months some of the darkest months of my life.

So when another position opened up at the shelter, I went for it. Incredibly, it didn’t even matter to me at the time that the job was to be a community educator—which meant lecturing to groups of all sizes and ages about domestic violence and healthy relationships. I remember a friend who worked the day-shift in shelter fearfully saying to me, “Don’t you have to talk in front of a lot of people in that job? I could never do that.” Honestly, a big part of me agreed with her. But the difference was that I was so uncomfortable in my current position, that I was willing to tolerate another kind of discomfort, if it meant change.

I loved being a community educator and the experiences it brought me. Each day was different, and I was constantly meeting people and forming new connections. I learned about myself, and I learned about teaching. The work was tiring, and it seemed like each day I faced a new fear, but it was so rewarding that the stress was always worth it.

I would have been happy doing that job for a long time if I’d been making just a little more money. I had more than enough to afford living with my mom, but I wanted to be financially independent. I knew from conversations with my co-workers who had been there for up to ten years that wages never increased significantly. I could have scraped by, but I wanted a position where there was room for growth.

When I heard about an opportunity in finance from my brother, I had to weigh the comforts and discomforts of each job to make a decision about what path I wanted to go down. With one job, there was the comfort of doing work that meant something to me, but the discomfort of struggling to pay my bills. And with the other job, there was the comfort of being able to afford my bills, but the discomfort of not doing something that deeply mattered to me. But because I wasn’t sure what comfort I preferred at the time, or how to find a balance between those comforts, I decided to try something new. I took a job working with mutual funds and software, in a field I had never imagined myself in.

Cut to a year later. My dad had just passed away, and I couldn’t keep my focus on financial regulatory services. Life seemed too short to spend forty hours a week doing something that wasn’t really engaging me, so I applied for an unpaid internship at a feminist magazine I’d always loved. And when I got the internship, I made the bold move to quit my job and move to New York City. Luckily for me, when I told my boss, she was not only extremely supportive of my decision, but she also offered to keep me on part-time, remotely. 

Since then, I’ve been able to write about the things that matter most to me without the pressure of relying on it to cover my living expenses. And I’ve gotten to a position with my company where I’m doing work with software that I finally find challenging and engaging. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the end goal, and like everyone else, I truly don’t know what will happen next. But even though I was uncertain of them at the time, I’m grateful now for where my decisions have led me. 

For a long time, I wondered constantly if I was making the “right” choices, and doing what I “should” be doing. And of course, like every other person in the world, I still have those concerns. But their power over me has been diminishing slowly. With time, I’ve started to realize that feeling lost and uncertain is not so scary, and it’s also not that unusual. From what I’ve observed from the people around me—people my age, and people older–feeling lost is simply part of being human. Life changes constantly, and discomfort and unsettledness can come at any moment. Even when work is going well, no one is protected from struggles in their personal lives. Those impossible-to-predict moments will always exist, and always have the power to interrupt the comfort we think we’ve found.

Our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies degrees acquainted us with discomfort. We learned that it is discomfort with a system or the status-quo that leads an individual, and then a group, to challenge it. We saw that movements are birthed out of discomfort, and therefore, so is progress. We read people’s most personal stories about their discomfort, and we began to recognize their deepest vulnerabilities. We saw ourselves in these stories, and we realized how much feminism and social justice matter to us.  

It was hearing people’s personal stories as an advocate that added color to what I’d learned in school. Because even though I knew the issues I read about in class were significant, it was not until I stared them in the face that I truly recognized their urgency.

A big part of what gave me the ability to be a compassionate listener was what I learned in my Women’s  Studies classes. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes my knee-jerk reaction was to feel disappointed in the choices I saw some women make. But I’m grateful that when those feelings came up, I was able to take a step back and do my best to put myself in the shoes of the women I was working with. And almost every time, I realized that I had no idea what I would do if I were them.

If I hadn’t spent so much time in college learning the roots of the issues my clients faced, I might not have remembered to take that step back. I might have overlooked the fact that the women I was working with were limited by systems and circumstances, and that many times it wasn’t comfort they were after, but simply survival. If I’d let the judgments I’d internalized throughout my life get in the way, my clients wouldn’t have been able to trust me. I had to replace those judgments with the openness I was taught in school. It made me believe that only by understanding a person’s discomfort can we truly comfort them.

On the campaign trail, we see political candidates refusing to empathize with the struggles of the people they claim to represent. It’s not uncommon to see people act this way, simply to avoid the discomfort of taking on another’s pain. We all know that at times, our own pain can feel like more than enough.

But when we see this behavior in the larger political picture, it’s obvious how damaging it is. We see how it causes suffering and perpetuates injustice. We see how it marginalizes certain groups and fails to unite us. And we are faced with just how vital it is to be willing to feel and get to know discomfort.  

I think that getting to know discomfort means looking at the parts of yourself, and the parts of the world you’d probably rather ignore. It means recognizing those parts, and finding the courage to improve them. It’s the kind of work that’s difficult, and it’s the kind of work that’s never complete. But it’s also the kind of work that I know your education the past four years has prepared you for.

Like me, you might feel uncomfortable if you find yourself doing a job that is not what you imagine as technically “using your degree.” If that’s the case, I encourage you to rethink what it means to “use your degree.” As women’s studies graduates, you have earned a very special education. You’ve taken classes, met professors, and become friends with peers who have opened your minds, increased your capacity for empathy, and shown you what really matters to you. Your degree has shaped you so strongly that you wouldn’t be able to stop using it if you wanted, because it’s simply a part of who you are.

You’ll be reminded of it wherever you go, and whatever you do, because the essentialness for feminism and social justice is so prevalent, and your passion for it is so clearly needed. And even if a job you take doesn’t feel directly related to your Women’s Studies degree, remember that you will still be using it.

You will be using it every time you take a step back and rethink your judgments towards people. You will be using it every time you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand the history and circumstances that brought them where they are. And you will be using it every time you question a system or a norm.

The way Women’s Studies teaches us to question things isn’t just significant when we think about progress and equality and the ways we’d like to see the world change. It also applies to how we shape our own lives. If something is the status quo, but it’s simply not working for us, we know we can reject it. This is key when we think about the way we want our lives to look, and the way we want our careers to look.

Learning to be less hard on myself about the differences between what I am doing and what I think I should be doing is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years. It’s important because when we let go of the “shoulds” we’ve internalized, we free up space to make room for a life all our own. And when that life suits us, and includes what we really care about, the discomfort we face for being different tends to hardly matter to us at all.

The future is not clear-cut, and that can be uncomfortable. The years ahead of you will undoubtedly involve insecurity and tough decisions. But I promise that in time, discomfort will feel more and more like a friend. It will help you grow, realize your strength, and increase your self-awareness. 

Your time here  has shown you the value of tolerating and learning from discomfort. It’s made you more empathetic, and revealed to you the issues you care most about. It’s molded you into a person who is eager to connect with others, and who will undoubtedly touch many lives in the years to come. And then inspire others to do the same.

Thank you, and congratulations. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *