Wendy Davis: Texas Size Opportunist

Does it matter that Wendy Davis doctored her personal story to make herself more sympathetic? Mudslinging always makes politics unpleasant, and it might seem that the tawdry details of Davis’ personal history are exactly the kind of irrelevant gossip that the press should let go. After all, from a Catholic perspective, Davis’ pro-choice advocacy would only be that much more offensive if she were a lifelong practicing Catholic.

Nevertheless, it does matter, and it’s important to understand why. Davis told her life story over the course of her eleven-hour filibuster last June, in an effort to block Senate Bill 5 from passing the Texas state Senate. The bill was designed to tighten restrictions on abortion in the state of Texas. By keeping the Senate tied up until midnight, Davis succeeded in preventing its passage during that particular legislative session, but shortly afterwards Texas governor Rick Perry convened a special session during which the bill was passed.

In legislative terms, Davis’ strategy was effectively a failure, but in political terms it was far more successful. Through her filibuster Davis vaulted herself into the pantheon of anti-life titans. She is now poised to run for governor in the state of Texas, and at the heart of that campaign is her personal story about starting out in a trailer park as a divorced teenage mother, and ending up as a Harvard-educated lawyer with a bright political future.

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As it happens, though, Davis’ account played fast and loose with some of the details. Admittedly, the factual inaccuracies might be dismissed as technicalities, and on those grounds the liberal press has dismissed them as unimportant. Davis claimed to have been divorced at 19, but in fact she was only separated; the divorce was not finalized until two years later. She exaggerated her mother’s hard-luck history by claiming that she had had no more than a sixth-grade education, when further investigation revealed that her mother had indeed attended high school. These, however, are relatively minor details.

Still, the overall shape of the story is far less sympathetic than Davis’ initial telling would suggest. She did, as claimed, live in a trailer for a few months before getting her own apartment. She did indeed attend community college while raising a daughter from her first failed marriage. But her move to Harvard came at the expense (literally) of her second husband, attorney Jeff Davis, who cashed in his 401(k) and took loans to help pay for her law school education. He also cared for her daughters in Fort Worth while she was in Boston attending law school. When she demanded a divorce (which, as he wryly observed, happened remarkably soon after the last educational payment had been made), Jeff Davis won custody of the younger daughter while his wife was ordered to pay child support.

Unsurprisingly, the conservative press has been quick to publicize the truth of Davis’ deception, and the liberal press has been equally eager to accuse their conservative counterparts of sexism. Many liberal journalists and bloggers indignantly remarked that a male politician would never be criticized for depending on spousal support in pursuing his career. It was Davis’ womanhood, not her minor fabrications, that put her in the crosshairs.

Would a male politician be exonerated if relied heavily on his wife for career support and then abandoned her once he’d arrived? I expect not. Nevertheless, liberals are right that the attacks on Davis take note of her sex. It could hardly be otherwise, because a male politician could never have climbed the ladder in the way that Davis did.

Feminists have long worked to control the conversation about abortion by restricting who is “qualified” to contribute. Men are not qualified, because they are unable to bear children themselves. Although it might seem that men do have a stake in defending the lives of innocent children (particularly their own), feminists dismiss it as the epitome of patriarchal domination when men ask women to bear children against their will. After their initial contribution to the act of procreation, men may participate only as cheerleaders and financiers for whatever course of action the woman prefers.

The unborn, conveniently, are literally unable to speak for themselves. At the critical period in which their lives hang in the balance, their lungs are not yet developed enough to utter a sound. They can be effectively sidelined.

Accordingly, it is women who are left to settle the abortion question. But even among women, some voices are more authoritative than others, because the hardship associated with childbearing varies widely from one woman to another. A woman from a wealthy family who engages in pro-life advocacy is likely to be dismissed, because she cannot understand the interests of poorer women for whom children will represent a much greater burden. Even just having a husband may make a woman seem less qualified to address the situation of the “less fortunate.” Somewhat obtusely, making sensible life choices seems to diminish a woman’s standing to express a view on what sorts of choices women ought to make.

Interestingly, though, advocates for legal abortion do tend to brag about their maternity, whereas they rarely broadcast the number of abortions they themselves have had. That’s because Americans are still troubled by abortion, and worried that it is used as a callous and selfish way of prioritizing adult comforts over children’s lives. The perfect advocate, then, is a woman who has faced the sorts of circumstances that might drive some to abortion, but herself taken the harder road and come out smiling.

That was the Wendy Davis story. She was the perfect women’s advocate. Someone who really knows the hardships that women face. Someone who had shouldered responsibility, weathered the storm, and ultimately climbed the crag.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, the real truth is far less inspiring, and having leaned so heavily on her story as evidence of her fitness for office, Davis can hardly cry foul when conservatives do the same. The real Wendy Davis was not a brave, independent woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps while lovingly nurturing her offspring. She relied on a man (and to all appearances used him rather badly), and left her children in another state while she pursued her education. Coupling that with her aggressive pro-choice advocacy, would it be wholly unreasonable to conclude that Davis may not like children all that much?

Either personal narrative matters, or it doesn’t. If it does, Wendy Davis looks like a callous opportunist and a morally unserious person. She also lies. I can’t imagine the state of Texas wanting to mess with a person like that.

(Photo credit: Dallas Morning News.)


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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