What do you think about when you hear “teen mom?” Perhaps you think about someone who was arrested for heroin recently, or maybe about someone else who came out with a sex tape (aka made a pornographic movie) with James Deen. Maybe your thoughts immediately went to shameful ad campaigns by Candie’s or New York City on preventing teen pregnancy. You might not have thought, however, about Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, who prepared an epic 13-hour filibuster on Tuesday in hopes of blocking SB 5 — a bill in front of the Texas State House that would not only ban all abortions after 20 weeks, but would also close 37 of the state’s 42 clinics, making abortion access in Texas virtually null.
But Sen. Wendy Davis is both a badass reproductive justice warrior and teen mother.
Sen. Davis, now 50, became a single mother at 19 after divorcing the father of her first child. And for many, this is how her story is currently being framed. What Sen. Davis accomplished on Tuesday was both honorable and inspirational. She effectively shut down a bill that would have had devastating consequences for many women living in Texas and surrounding states. Sen. Davis stood at her podium — and under the filibuster rules was not allowed to sit, lean, eat, drink, or use the bathroom — for over 12 hours in hopes of preventing a grave injustice for women’s reproductive rights. And she wholeheartedly succeeded. (It didn’t take long for anti-choicers to react: yesterday TX Governor Rick Perry said the state legislature will hold a special session on July 1 to vote on SB5.)
Yet, despite this massive accomplishment, many news outlets are choosing to lead with the fact that Sen. Davis had a child as a teen. Would the headlines read the same way if it was a male Senator that attempted the filibuster? Would we harp on the fact that he was a teen father? I highly doubt it. In fact, if a male senator had accomplished what Davis did, we might get — at best — a passing reference to his status as father. Instead, many news outlets are painting an almost “rags to riches” story, with CNN profiling Wendy Davis with the headline: “From teen mom to Harvard Law to famous filibuster.”
Wendy Davis didn’t “overcome” being a teen mother by finding salvation and redemption through Harvard Law. No. Senator Davis was a young mother who had a plan in her head and set about accomplishing it. She didn’t go to Harvard Law or become a state senator in spite of being a teen mother; she managed those things while also being a mother. Full stop.
If anything, Senator Davis and her accomplishments provide a counterpoint to the shaming, exploitative, and fetishizing way that teen mothers are currently being portrayed in mainstream media. We’re not used to seeing stories like that of Wendy Davis because the ones fed to us by corporate media tend to deviate to the narrative that paints them as irresponsible, sexed-up, or living lives filled with drama. Very rarely do shows like “Teen Mom” or “16 & Pregnant” portray young mothers as successful despite whatever challenges they may fave.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Sen. Davis’ experience as a young mother has made her more aware of what motherhood encompasses, fueling her passion to strike down SB5. After all, it’s not unusual to feel more passionate about protecting reproductive rights after becoming a mother. And there is certainly no shame at all in being a young mother. In fact, some of the most amazing and well-organized activist work I have seen recently has occurred with young mothers at the helm.
But that’s not the narrative the media is spinning. Some are trotting out Davis’ teen pregnancy as a cautionary tale, noting that despite these tough beginnings she turned her life around, as if being a young mother is something to fix. Others seem to be in disbelief, amazed that a former teen mother has risen to the point where she’s accomplished something so historically significant.
Neither framing is wholly accurate, if at all. Simply put: Sen. Wendy Davis has worked hard to get where she is and it has paid off, especially for the women of Texas. She is also a mother who happened to be young when she had her first daughter. Yes, she changed diapers at a young age. Now, she is changing the world.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs for The Mamafesto.