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Meet Texas Senator Wendy Davis, the Woman Behind the 13-Hour Abortion Filibuster

Conservatives in the Texas State Senate have the majority necessary to pass one of the nation’s most severe abortion bans, which the Texas House approved early Monday morning after nine hours of debate.

But if State Senator Wendy Davis, a 50-year-old attorney from Fort Worth, can filibuster the bill for just less than 13 hours—when the special legislative session ends—then unless Governor Rick Perry calls another special legislative session, it will die.

Davis’s filibuster has been ongoing since around 11 a.m., when she took the floor in comfy pink sneakers; she cannot stop talking (except to take questions) or sit. A Harvard Law School graduate whom Democrats in Texas and abroad had dearly hoped would challenge Rick Perry for governor in 2014 (she said today she isn’t running), Davis is well-known to Texans as one of their most powerful and outspoken lawmakers. Below are a few of her career highlights.

An unlikely biography

Davis is an accomplished lawyer today, but at the outset of her adult life, she had no intention of even going to college. (She would later be the first in her family to do so; her mother was a single parent, with an education cut short at the sixth grade, who worked in an ice cream shop.) According to a 1996 Fort Worth Star-Telegram profile of Davis, written when she first ran for Fort Worth city councilor, she chose to marry right out of high school and await the birth of her older daughter in a mobile home she shared with her first husband outside Dallas. Davis got on the path to a legal career after her first marriage ended and she joined a community college paralegal program, working two jobs to attend school.

Love her or hate her

Davis is a rallying figure for the beleaguered Texas Democratic party and, in the Texas Monthly’s telling, “inspires an almost visceral dislike” among the state’s uber-conservatives. Accordingly, Davis was on the receiving end of a two-year attempt by Texas Republicans to shred her senatorial district. Having defeated a longtime incumbent for her seat in 2008, Davis has already attracted two Republican challengers for her reelection in 2014.

Known as a dogged legislator, Davis, by her fourth month in the Texas Senate, had introduced nearly 70 bills, from consumer protections to an electricity regulation overhaul. She has been the force behind meaty fights over Texas laws that protect what amounts to loansharking. But she is nonetheless eager to be at the center of the most turbulent ideological fights that take place in the Senate, as today’s filibuster makes clear. She once invoked her experience as a single mother toiling at two jobs to oppose a strict voter ID measure.

A women’s rights advocate

Earlier this year, before taking on abortion restrictions, Davis introduced a state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to the Senate—necessary for pay discrimination suits to proceed in state court—which narrowly passed both houses of the Texas legislature before Perry vetoed it. As a freshman lawmaker, she was one of a handful of senators to vote against a nearly $200 billion state budget, as it didn’t provide enough funding for children’s health programs.

A fan of grand gestures

Finally, Davis is not a subtle legislator. When she ran for her state senate seat in 2008, Star-Telegram writer Jack Z. Smith reflected on how many times he had watched her cry during city council meetings—to him, a both touching and savvy feature. “Davis’s emotion is part and parcel of the tremendous passion—coupled with exceptional intellect and energy—that she has shown as councilwoman,” he wrote. In the Senate, she’s been known to don a college football helmet when she’s taking rhetorical heat from Republicans.

This isn’t even Davis’s first filibuster. Davis closed out the 2011 legislative year with an unsuccessful filibuster to stop $5 billion in budget cuts to public education—a move most believe cost her a seat on the Senate Education Committee when the legislature met in 2013. Supporters of hers thronged Lt. Governor David Dewhurst’s office with calls and petitions for her reinstatement. But although she’s been bit by the grandstanding bug, Texas Monthly notes that she is nonetheless a force for serious bipartisan policy, calling her one of the best legislators in the state.

Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.