Painting Wendy Davis as a bad mother is political sexism at its worst
Here we go again: sexist tropes being used against a high-profile female political candidate.
A recent article in the Dallas Morning News by the paper’s senior political writer Wayne Slater purported to correct the biography of Wendy Davis, the democratic candidate for Texas governor. Davis made headlines last summer for her pink-tennis-shoe wearing filibuster against a severely restrictive anti-abortion bill. In his piece, Slater charged that he was telling a fuller version of Davis’ life story because “some facts have been blurred” in the version she and her campaign have been telling.
Davis has portrayed herself as a tough single mother who made it through Harvard Law School and went from living in a trailer park to working her way up to a Texas state senate seat. Since Slater’s article was published last weekend, conservative media has jumped on it as evidence that Davis is not the (American) dream candidate.
Most of the attacks against Davis are sexist. As a columnist for Breibart.com tweeted: “Wendy Davis: My story of attending Harvard Law on my husband’s dime while he took care of the kids is a story every woman can relate to.” Talking Points Memo has a plethora of examples of the full-force sexist attacks. And Twitter exploded earlier this week with the #MoreFakeThanWendyDavis hashtag, making fun of Davis for being a liar.
The problem is that the Dallas Morning News article that caused this backlash is questionable at best, and is undeniably sexist in its telling of Davis’ story. Slater implies that Davis was a negligent mother in order to pursue her education and political career, and that she used her husband for his money. He quotes an “anonymous source” that claims that “Wendy [Davis] is tremendously ambitious. She’s not going to let family or raising children or anything else to get in her way.”
The “blurred facts”, according to Slater, were that Davis says she divorced at 19, when in fact she had only separated from his first husband at 19, with the divorce being finalized when she was 21. Slater says that Davis overstates her time living as a single mother in a trailer, explaining that “she lived only a few months in a family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment”.
Davis’ bio on her website states that she paid for her tuition at Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School through “academic scholarships, student loans, and state and federal grants,” Slater’s piece says that Jeff Davis, Wendy’s second husband, “paid for her final two years at TCU”. He also says that after Davis was accepted to Harvard, “Jeff Davis cashed in his 401k account and eventually took out a loan to pay for her final year there.” (Jeff Davis has given a statement to CNN clarifying all the reasons behind his decision to cash out his 401k).
Slater goes on to fill in holes of Davis’ background that are, in his and his editor’s judgment, relevant to her run at Texas governor. When Davis was attending Harvard Law School, her daughters “then 8 and 2, remained with Jeff Davis in Fort Worth”. Slater also described in detail that in 2003, when Wendy and Jeff Davis divorced, Jeff “was awarded parental custody. Wendy Davis was ordered to pay $1,200 a month in child support”. He then quotes Jeff who claims Wendy said to him, “While I’ve been a good mother, it’s not a good time for me right now.”
And in regards to the loans incurred from Davis’ time at TCU and Harvard, Slater writes, “In November 2003, Wendy Davis moved out. Jeff Davis said that was right around the time that their final payment on the Harvard School loan was due. ‘It was ironic,’ he said. ‘I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.'” Slater is not-too-carefully hinting here that there is a direct connection between the final payment of her loan and her choice to leave her husband, the implication being that she remained with him for his money.
According to Name It. Change It (NICI), a non-partisan project that is trying to eradicate sexism in political campaigns, sexism is subtly coded so that it may appear innocuous but, in fact, is damaging to the female candidate. NICI has “Pyramid of Egregiousness” and under the section titled “Really Damn Sexist”, they list “bad mother” and “gold-digger” as two common characterizations of female candidates that are often used to undermine them. Slater’s article deploys both against Davis.
So it is no surprise that there has a been a lot of uproar about the not-so-subtle sexism in Slater’s piece (some examples are here, here, and here). A fellow female colleague from Davis’ days serving on the Fort Worth City Council, Becky Haskins, a Republican, has even publicly stated that the description of Davis as a mother is unfair:
If this involved a man running for office, none of this would ever come up.
Laura Bassett noted that the publication of this Davis piece follows closely on the heels of the news that Davis had raised more money in the last six months of 2013 than her Republican competitor, Greg Abbott. Carl Lindemann has pointed out that if we are going to scrutinize Davis’ life in this way, the same must be done with Abbott.
For its part, the Dallas Morning News has responded multiple times to the criticism but only to defend the piece. They have not apologized, nor have they admitted that how Slater told Davis’ story was incomplete and dependent on sexist tropes about female political candidates. Slater himself responded to the criticism and defended his piece, charging that a person’s interpretation of his piece depends on your political beliefs.
On Monday, two days after Slater’s piece ran, Davis released an open letter in which she said that “our opponents have gotten more and more desperate” and are now stooping “to a new low by attacking my family, my education, and my personal story”. She says that her story of “resiliency, and sacrifice, and perseverance. And you’re damn right it’s a true story.”
Damn right. As a woman, a mother, and a person whose partner has helped me financially to secure a good education, I am disappointed in seeing the first female democratic candidate for Texas governor in a long while – a woman who came to international fame for fighting for access to full, comprehensive reproductive healthcare – being painted as a poor mother or a money-grubbing schemer.
I hope someday that it will not be remarkable to have two women (Davis’ running mate is Leticia Van De Putte) at the top of the ticket. In order to make that happen, we have to keep holding the media accountable for how they talk about male and female candidates differently and we have to continue to advocate for gender-neutral reporting.