By Rachel Osterloh
I was 18 years old when I decided interning at the Texas Capitol was imperative to my collegiate success as a government major at UT Austin. Prepared with the bright-eyed naivety of a freshman, I heartily dedicated myself to political ideology and Socratic philosophy. After hearing from multiple student leaders about the overwhelming importance of starting in the legislature early, I was keen to jump-start my legislative career. I wasn’t aware that an “intern” was an unpaid glorified receptionist who specialized in retrieving and balancing caffeinated beverages from the Starbucks on 6th street. I was accepted as an intern for a representative and was jubilant. I called my mom and bought my first pencil skirt at Loft. It was the start of a business professional clothing love affair. For those who know me now, pencil skirts are weekly staples. I tend to stray away from trite phrases, but this first pencil skirt was more than a well-crafted garment. This grey pencil skirt in particular marks the commencement of my struggle with systemic and subtle sexism in the Texas Legislature.
My first day on the job, I was asked why “a pretty girl like (me) was interested in grants.” During my first week, I was referred to as “sweetheart,” “honey,” and “doll face.” I vaguely remember tugging down on my pencil skirt during my first day, as if by wearing a skirt, I permitted all under the Capitol dome to render “Rachel” synonymous with belittling feminine pronouns. I grant that every collegiate woman has differing experiences with working in the Texas Legislature, but my freshman year was not a positive experience. Not every woman has negative anecdotes, but I feel it is important to discuss our varied stories in order to fully gauge and improve the female intern experience. While I did gain skills and professional buzzwords for my resume, I also lost confidence in political female leadership. I experienced my male Texas representative verbally berate a female policy director and multiple interns. When my internship came to a close, I vowed to myself I would only work for politicians who, at the very least, endorsed and maintained an open environment in their office. Offering my free labor in exchange for an experience without comments on my gender seemed like the least I could ask.
Enter on the political stage: a Texas State Senator, armed with pink tennis shoes, contagious passion, and a progressive platform fitting for Texas governor. I met Senator Wendy Davis and reacted similarly to Leslie Knope, from NBC’S Parks and Recreation, meeting Joe Biden. After an intense battle to submit my resume, I was accepted to intern at her Senate office. I felt completely accepted. I was never shamed for wearing pencil skirts nor was I called by anything other than my given name. My experience in her Senate office completely changed my outlook on interning. I am happy to state my freshman experience was redeemed by my incredible opportunity to work with a woman who continuously forgot to be afraid and who empowered all women around her.
Davis, to me, is a woman who absolutely and unequivocally refused to stop fighting for her beliefs in the face of extreme controversy and strife. She is a woman who has been slandered mercilessly: facing character slurs and even being compared to a Barbie doll. Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin also faced this type of verbal abuse during the 2008 campaign when the media dubbed her “Caribou Barbie.” Character assaults against women rooted in physical appearance should be treated as a nonpartisan issue. Davis, to me and to other female leaders, represents strength, passion, and positivity in the face of criticism. I have gleaned from her race difficult and vital life lessons. Women will find themselves pitted against opponents who are afraid of their ability to foster change and who are terrified by their ability to take charge. Ad hominem arguments are easier to angrily yell while holding a sign, as opposed to engaging in an educated discussion, but we must remember toxic buzzwords will never change minds. In those trying moments, it is imperative we do not allow harsh words to deter our purpose. We must never bow out; we must remain in the arena. It is critical we remember our fight, remember who we are fighting for, and remember the catalytic power within ourselves. We must venture forward to create continual progress. Senator Davis taught me harness my abilities and ignore those who would blindly criticize rather than strive for change.
I watched her concession speech the night of the election, teary-eyed, while half-heartily studying for an Urban Politics exam. In her speech, Davis quoted one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes. Davis fought for all women in the political arena; her face was without a doubt marred with “sweat and blood.” Regardless of your political ideology, Davis encountered endless sexism during her campaign. She took steps forward for women in politics and passionately fought for policies that bettered the state of Texas from education to business. Davis showed aspiring women how to wield metaphorical shields constructed of passion and Texas sized guts. She persevered regardless of the negativity produced by the media and her opponents.
I am disappointed by this loss, Wendy. I am disappointed Texans did not feel your vision aligned with their own. But, I am not discouraged. I will continue to lift my voice for women everywhere. I will remember your strength and carry it in my heart during my own personal trials. You were the first Texas female politician to teach me how to combat sexism and negativity, and I will not forget these lessons.
Thank you, Wendy Davis. For you, I will never stop fighting.
1* | To read more from Rachel, visit her blog, check her out on twitter, or maybe give her instagram (otoriousrao) a follow. 2* | Feature image and side illustrations by Cody Bubenik 3* | Update 1:50PM this article was originally published with a previous version's name and a couple of first-draft sentences, it has since been updated to reflect its final form. Sorry for any confusion.