Over the weekend, Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News published what is clearly meant to be a devastating expose of Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator who is running for governor after getting national attention for an exhausting filibuster in the Texas legislature in support of abortion rights. Slater's angle was that Davis is dishonest, which is no doubt why the gleeful Twitter hashtag created to elevate the story is #morefakethanwendydavis. The problem is that the evidence for Davis' dishonesty is pretty weak sauce.
The big, uh, lie is that she dates her first divorce to the time she actually left her husband at age 19 instead of 21, when the paperwork was final. Slater also accuses her of overselling what a struggle it was to lift herself out of poverty and go to Harvard Law because her second husband, Jeff Davis, offered her child care and financial assistance. "The basic elements of the narrative are true," Slater wrote in his piece, "but the full story of Davis’ life is more complicated, as often happens when public figures aim to define themselves." Frankly, most politicians spin their life story more egregiously between getting out of bed and having their first cup of coffee.
While Slater's story fails at demonstrating that Davis is dishonest, it does do a smashing job of portraying Davis as the embodiment of a particularly misogynist stereotype, the scheming gold-digger who manipulates a hapless man with her sexuality. (Slater is not the first to lean on sexist tropes to define Davis: Her good looks have been a sore spot for conservatives since her filibuster made her famous, which is why some have lovingly nicknamed her "Abortion Barbie.") Slater emphasizes that Davis' second husband was older and wealthier and that she was the aggressor in pursuing the relationship. Slater all but counts every dollar Davis' second husband spent on her education. Even though Wendy Davis had her own law practice by the time she divorced Jeff Davis in 2003, Slater portrays her as squeezing her husband dry before running out the door:
Jeff Davis said that was right around the time the final payment on their Harvard Law School loan was due. “It was ironic,” he said. “I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.”
Not sure that's really irony, but I'll tell you what is: that this hit piece came out right in the midst of a tidal wave of conservatives telling women the best cure for poverty is to marry their way out of it. That is, apparently, unless you intend to run for office later, in which case you're a gold-digger.
There's more: Slater made sure to paint Davis as a bad mother. After noting that Jeff Davis got custody of their one teenager still living at home after the divorce, he cites an anonymous source for commentary on her personal life.
A former colleague and political supporter who worked closely with Davis when she was on the council said the body’s work was very time-consuming.
“Wendy is tremendously ambitious,” he said, speaking only on condition of anonymity in order to give what he called an honest assessment. “She’s not going to let family or raising children or anything else get in her way.”
It's hard to imagine any publication thinking that they've got a big story upon discovering that a male politician had a loyal wife who supported him financially and took care of things at home while he built up his career. If the genders were reversed, it seems obvious that a woman's support of her husband's career is simply an investment in her family's future. It's nearly impossible to imagine that anyone would think it's a form of abandonment for a divorced male politician to let his ex-wife have custody of a teenager.
Now the question is whether Slater's sexist narrative will hurt Wendy Davis' chances. It's hard to imagine that there are many Texans who were considering voting for a pro-choice Democrat but would be too scandalized by her deviations from gender norms to vote for her now. The biggest obstacle that Davis faces—that she's a Democrat in a solidly red state—hasn't changed a bit. And the fact that the attacks on her are getting so shrill suggests that perhaps Republicans are really beginning to fear she has a chance.