Bio Hazard

Campaigns get complicated when politics and gender collide. Just ask Wendy Davis.

April 2014By Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

The intersection of gender and politics is a complicated and contentious topic, and one that I don’t like writing about. Imagine my dismay, then, when I discovered that this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Wendy Davis, is a woman. A woman who has had romantic relationships. A woman who has been both a parent and a politician. A woman who has experienced setbacks and successes. A woman who wears clothes—and shoes. It’s true that we could say the same about many male politicians, and that we could analyze the implications of those facts, and that we could angrily object to other people’s analyses of the same facts. It’s also true, of course, that we typically don’t do any of those things when the candidate is a man.

 Even worse, Davis has turned out to be more than just a pretty face. She’s a woman with a complicated character, polarizing opinions, and a striking life story, all of which she has presented to the public somewhat inconsistently. It’s not as if anyone expected her to be boring; she vaulted to national fame because she filibustered a bill that sought to, among other things, ban all abortions in Texas after twenty weeks. That suggested a talent for being controversial, and since the campaign officially began, in October, there have been even more clues. Several media accounts have documented discrepancies between the candidate’s version of her life story and the facts, which have turned out to be slightly less inspirational. Davis was a struggling single mother after her first divorce, for example, but that divorce became official when she was 21 rather than 19, and though she struggled for a time, she lived comfortably enough after marrying her second husband, who raised the kids and paid the bills while she was traveling between Texas and Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School. The unvarnished version of the story, and the fact that Davis varnished it, triggered a debate about whether Davis has the character and the credibility to be governor. That debate, in turn, triggered a meta-debate about whether the critics who are questioning Davis’s character are anything more than sexist and prurient scolds.

And so when my editor suggested an essay about the controversies surrounding Davis and whether they tell us anything about women in politics, I was stuck. I would have liked to have dodged it, to have made a counteroffer. Let’s not talk about sexism in politics, I might have said; let’s talk about why the combined state and local debt has more than doubled in Texas since 2001! But I could see the boss’s point. The controversies about Davis are related to the fact that she’s a woman, but, gender aside, this degree of sturm und drang would raise questions and result in stories being assigned.

The recent round of controversy began in January, when Wayne Slater, a political reporter for the Dallas Morning News, wrote an article examining various claims Davis had made about her life. “Some facts,” he wrote, “have been blurred.” Personally, I wasn’t shocked by anything in Slater’s story. Many of the irregularities discussed, such as the fact that her daughters had stayed in Fort Worth instead of living with her while she was studying at Harvard, had already been reported elsewhere. Some of her statements seemed more like simplification than spin; I had never wondered how Davis paid her school tuition, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Davis’s husband had supported her while she was in law school. They were, after all, a family.

I’m giving my opinion, incidentally, because this is an essay about gender and politics, and opinion is really the only data available, which is one reason why I don’t like writing these things. But let me offer a backup opinion from a man named Rick Perry. In June, speaking at the National Right to Life Convention, he referred to “the woman who filibustered” as evidence of his belief that every life deserves a chance. The speech drew a lot of attention, because the governor couldn’t resist a jab: “It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example.” More germane, in retrospect, is how he summarized Davis’s life story: “She was the daughter of a single woman. She was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas Senate.” In other words, Davis’s life story is unusual, and impressive, on the basis of those facts alone. It’s obvious that Davis gave a flattering version of her biography. It’s equally obvious that she worked her way up from difficult circumstances, even if she had some help along the way.

As for the meta-debate, has Davis been judged unfairly because she’s a woman? Some of her critics are sexist and prurient scolds; that’s easy to prove, because they make no attempt to hide it. Many of the personal attacks on Davis since her filibuster discredit the critics who make them. Republicans who call her Abortion Barbie, for example, are as far out of line as Democrats who dismissed Sarah Palin as Caribou Barbie. Those labels are recognizable as attempts to demean, because they cast the women in question as objects, as thoughtless, pneumatic dolls individuated only by their accessories. People might raise a similar objection to dismissing Rick Perry as Governor Goodhair—a term first coined by Molly Ivins, a woman—but I would disagree with them. The latter nickname is mean-spirited, but it’s specific to Perry, who has always battled the reputation of being a lightweight. It doesn’t marginalize Perry simply because of his gender, and it includes his job title. An analogous gibe at Palin could be found in Tina Fey’s instant-classic impression, “I can see Russia from my house!”

To question a candidate’s version of events or to offer an opinion about the choices she has made, however, is not necessarily an attack. The rules of fair play are murky, regardless of gender. In Davis’s case, questions about her biography are justifiable, not because she’s a woman but because she has repeatedly and explicitly offered her life story as a campaign credential. At the beginning of her campaign for governor, she explained that she had been raised by a single mother who never even started high school and that she herself had barely earned her diploma before giving birth to her first daughter, Amber. At nineteen, Davis claimed, she was divorced from her baby’s father, living in a trailer home; she worked two jobs while putting herself through Tarrant County community college.

Davis told her supporters that she was sharing her story because it would help explain why, as governor, she would work to ensure that Texas remain a state where people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “I’m not sharing that story because it’s unique or special. I’m sharing it precisely because it’s not.” Clearly, though, Davis was also telling her life story for the same reason that so many politicians before her have: to impress the audience with the way she had triumphed over adversity, worked to give her family a better life, and so on. She has subsequently said as much. After Slater’s story came out, Robert Draper, who wrote a cover story about Davis and the state Democratic party for Texas Monthly last summer, profiled Davis for the New York Times Magazine. He asked her whether she was aware that certain voters, particularly suburban women, may not be enthusiastic about some of the choices she had made in her path to power. If you’re in politics, she responded, there are bound to be people who criticize you, but she disagreed that Texas women would judge her harshly. “I would hope they would share some admiration for what I did to climb from where I was.”

The people in question—suburban women—are not necessarily a crucial swing vote in the upcoming general election. It has famously been more than twenty years since Texas voters sent a Democrat to the top office. The odds have always been stacked against Davis’s gubernatorial campaign for that reason, and based on the March 4 primary results, she is not generating the turnout Democrats would have hoped for. Still, Republicans should tread carefully here. It’s worth keeping in mind that in 1990 Ann Richards was elected governor after Clayton Williams, the Republican candidate, offered a widely reported casual joke about rape, then later refused to shake Richards’s hand at an event in Dallas and called her a liar. Texans certainly recoiled at that. 

The Republican gubernatorial nominee, Greg Abbott, isn’t a boor, but he was rebuked after campaigning with Ted Nugent, a person who has publicly admitted to having sex with underage girls. For that matter, if not for the steady drip of troglodytic comments and thoughtless behavior coming from high-profile conservatives around the country over the past several years about women and their health care, it’s likely that Texas’s abortion bill would have passed with far less national notice. 

The fact that Republicans have spent so much time attacking Davis is, by the way, revealing. After the 2012 elections, I wrote a short piece for the Economist, where I was working at the time, arguing that Barack Obama’s reelection should be seen as a repudiation of the paranoid strain that had infected the Republican party that year, leading various candidates to offend women, Hispanics, the LGBT community, and most sweepingly, the 47 percent of Americans who don’t earn enough money to pay federal income taxes. The Obama economy had been dismal enough, but the Democrats, I concluded, were the only party in the country that had shown an “intention of inclusion.” 

I’m quoting that phrase because I still think it’s true. I don’t think the Republican party is intrinsically racist or misogynistic or xenophobic. Nothing in conservative philosophy necessitates those forms of bigotry, and the Texas Republican party is not solely made up of aging white men. On the other hand, conservative principles aren’t intrinsically off-putting to women, Hispanics, African Americans, young people, gay people, or anybody else, yet older white men make up the only major demographic group that disproportionately favors the GOP at this point. There are reasons for Texas voters to be skeptical of Davis’s biography. There are also reasons for Texas voters to be skeptical of a party in power that’s more concerned with interrogating an underdog than with making a case for itself. 

Davis is hardly the first politician to try to score points with voters by volunteering an inspirational backstory. Plenty of public figures do that, with good reason. It’s always impressive when someone works their way up from nothing. It’s a sign of cultural health and confidence that Texans are disposed to celebrate such individuals rather than resent them. Candidates who make self-aggrandizing claims invite scrutiny, though, and candidates who talk about their personal lives rather than their policy proposals should expect questions about the former rather than the latter. And that goes both ways: a party that obsesses about the opposition is a party that either doesn’t have a better message or doesn’t have confidence in it. Each side is indulging in a destructive game that is diverting attention from issues of greater importance to the state, like the recent explosion of combined state and local debt. In my heart, I have feelings about that. I think it’s an ominous trend.

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