Texas state senator and gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis has been on the defensive recently, ever since a Dallas Morning News piece documented inconsistencies between the story of personal struggle Davis has been using to promote herself in her campaign and . . . well, the facts.
Wendy Davis has since admitted that her campaign’s story included errors and misleading spin. She said in an interview, “My language should have been tighter. I’m learning about using broader, looser language. I need to be more focused on the detail.” (Just what we all want: the leader of the second most populous state in the union who admits she struggles with attention to details, starting with those of her own life.)
Davis supporters argue that Wendy’s political ambitions and personal life get judged by a double standard because she’s a woman. They claim male politicians don’t face this high scrutiny and that her critics reveal their misogyny by subjecting her to higher standards.
Of course, that’s a canny political pivot: make criticism work to your advantage by redirecting the negativity back to the critics themselves. What about the underlying question, though? Is Wendy Davis subject to a double standard because she’s a woman?
First, let’s get clear on some of the inconsistencies.
Davis testified during a federal-court redistricting suit, “I had a baby. I got divorced by the time I was 19 years old. After I got divorced, I lived in a mobile home park in southeast Fort Worth.” As it turns out, Davis was actually 21 at the time of her first divorce. For a few months after she and her first husband Frank Underwood separated, she continued living in the mobile home they had shared. The terms of the divorce awarded Frank the mobile home (and its mortgage). Wendy moved in with her mom, then into her own apartment. The court ordered Frank to pay child support for their daughter Amber.
Wendy Davis’s 2012 campaign brochure reads in part: “When I was a single mom living in a small trailer home, I had to make some tough choices to give my daughter a better life. I worked hard to put myself through Tarrant [County] College and later Harvard Law School because my daughters were counting on me.” Davis has sketched a picture of herself as a single mom tussling her way on her own to the Ivy League.
Though her academic achievements are real — and really laudable — the facts don’t bear out Davis’s spin. Around age 21, she began dating 34-year-old Jeff Davis, an attorney and businessman. They married a few years later. Jeff paid for Wendy’s final years at Texas Christian University as well as her time at Harvard Law School. While Wendy attended school in Cambridge, Wendy’s daughter from her first marriage, Amber, and Jeff and Wendy’s daughter Dru continued living in Texas with Jeff.
The Dallas Morning News story quoted Jeff Davis as saying that Wendy left home for good the day after he made her last Harvard student loan payment. Wendy was ordered to pay $1,200 per month in child support for their daughter Dru, who was to remain living with her dad after the divorce. Amber was in college by that time.
Sources that have responded to the custody issue have pointed out that the divorce settlement awarded “joint conservatorship” of the daughter to both Jeff and Wendy. This is something of a non-sequitur, as those familiar with the relevant provisions of the Texas Family Code know. “Joint conservatorship” is a separate matter from the question of which parent has physical possession of the child. Since no one was accusing Wendy of physically abusing her kids, it is unsurprising that she remained a joint conservator. That doesn’t change the fact that Jeff was the one who would be actively raising their daughter in his home on a daily basis after the divorce.
One of the saddest parts of this story is that Wendy Davis’s actual biography is not one she need be ashamed of. Yet, it is Wendy herself who opted to tell a distorted version of the truth, whether because of personal guilt or hunger for a perceived political advantage.
Individuals and families make hard choices when one or more of the people involved prioritize education and career ambitions. Is it defensible for a woman to prioritize her ambitions over her children, at least in the short term? Yes, if she’s willing to accept the consequences of that choice, just as men must. Is it defensible for a woman to utilize the resources available to her because of her husband’s financial and domestic stability? Yes, just as much as it’s okay that countless professional men have achieved much of what they have because of the (often unsung) support provided by their wives and partners.
Was it defensible for Wendy Davis to choose as she did? Yes, though she’s responsible for both that choice and its political and personal consequences, just as a man is. Hell, it’s even defensible to argue that you’d make a better governor than you were a mom. Not that Wendy Davis is making that argument. Or that I would believe it.
The personal consequences of this choice are best left among family members. Jeff Davis hardly seems bitter in interviews, though he has been critical of how Wendy has chosen to portray herself in the media. (Non-bitter ex-husbands are worth their weight in gold. Or so I’ve heard.) Her daughters, now adults, support her gubernatorial campaign. So, perhaps Wendy chose well.
Nonetheless, one of the political consequences of a choice like Davis’s is that you don’t get to brand yourself as a downtrodden, hardscrabble single mom, putting your children first and doing it all on your own. It doesn’t actually count as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps when others are lifting your boots at the same time.
Ironically, it is people like Wendy Davis herself that perpetuate the lie that women need to be ashamed of being equal players with men. The fact that Wendy knowingly misled the public about her background suggests that her actual background is unsavory. What message does that send to her daughters and other young women?
A peril of identity politics is that your identity becomes a part of your political message. Once it becomes part of your political message, your identity becomes a part of your political strategy. Once your identity is part of your political strategy, you may easily find yourself shopping around for the most shrewd way of identifying yourself. Suddenly, your actual identity may look less preferable than another version. Playing identity politics makes it tempting to pick another identity for yourself because that identity would help to further your political goals. Wendy Davis apparently succumbed to that temptation.
Wendy wants it both ways. She wants credit for the single-mother lifestyle she has identified with, while enjoying the benefits of an actual life of decades-long family support. She brands herself to the public first and foremost as a woman, then decries her critics for making her female identity an issue. If anyone is applying a double standard to Wendy Davis, it’s her.
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org