Wendy Davis supporters turn out in orange.
(image by Ann Harkness)
For the last week, all eyes have been on Wendy Davis, questioning or defending her parenting and her past. At this point, plenty of articles have been written dissecting when she was divorced, when she was re-married, who paid for what at what time -- and I'm not writing one of those pieces. I'm not writing one of those pieces partially because plenty of talented writers have spent hour upon hour researching and clarifying the truth -- but mainly because I don't care. And neither should you.
The most striking thing about the "scandal" and "debate" surrounding Davis right now isn't that her second husband helped her pay for law school (you'll find that married couples often share the responsibility for bills, for example), but that sexism and classism are so pervasive in media and politics today that these "revelations" lit every writer, news outlet, and political pundit in Texas on fire.
When was the last time we questioned the parenting skills of a male elected official? If that's how we're deciding which way to pull the lever on Election Day, I want to see the divorce decree for every man on the ballot in November. Are they divorced? Who was awarded custody? Who was paying child support? If you didn't have primary custody of your child(ren) and you weren't awarded primary and sole conservatorship, I'm not voting for you.
Seem a little unrealistic? The idea that men who we vote into office are unfit parents and that their parenting skills affect their ability to carry out the responsibilities of their office is one that I don't see written about very often. When men who serve as elected officials have poor relationships with their children, lie about their marriages and divorces, or are involved in, God forbid, actually illegal activities, it's written off as the price we pay for qualified elected officials. It's a more sophisticated iteration of "boys will be boys," to be sure, but that's the core of the argument. We expect -- and excuse -- men who misbehave by breaking laws or treating their families poorly.
We -- and I'm talking about courts, the media, the public -- presume that women are the default caregivers. It's a message that patriarchy has rather successfully ingrained in generation after generation. Even today, with women running the U.S.'s international policy and running for president, it seems impossible to escape the assumption that any woman who dared separate from her children for more than a few days (leaving them in the "dangerous" hands of their stable, successful, involved father) has failed, not only as a mother but as a woman; as a member of society. Davis, by all accounts, was an involved mother who was walking the thin line between the competitive, all-consuming environment of law school and the difficult and equally consuming job of raising children.
As the daughter of a woman who had a child young and went on to an acclaimed law school after my birth, I can appreciate the kind of struggle that it takes to make both of those things co-exist in the limited number of daylight hours that we're all restricted by. But my mother isn't running for public office -- so nobody is questioning whether she should have been at home with me and my father instead of attending law school. This is a 21 st century way for the media to announce that Davis should have been a stay at home mom, spending each day with her kids, rather than working to fulfill her professional ambitions. Instead of allowing this kind of rhetoric to dominate our electoral cycles, we should be re-directing the spotlight back towards those making these issues the debate of the day. Why should the fact that a young mother attended a prestigious and competitive law school make her a bad mother -- or for that fact, ineligible for the Governorship twenty years later?
It isn't just male privilege working to discredit Davis's run; articles written about how long Davis lived in a trailer and supported her family by working two jobs also reek of class privilege. When Davis announced her candidacy for Governor, there were those who posed questions about whether her background was respectable enough for the leader of our state. Upon reflection, it seems that those opposed to Davis's candidacy have decided that she didn't live in a trailer long enough to be the leader of our state. When we allow wealthy political pundits to make the determination that Davis's short tenure in a trailer and then a series of crappy apartments with her children disqualify her for public office, we cede our power as an electorate to those who would fill every open office with wealthy white men who have always operated with the privilege of race, sex, and money.
Instead of dumbing our decisions at the ballot box down to match the shallow and often sexist claims espoused by political pundits and media outlets, we have the option to demand better. We have the option -- and the obligation -- to see beyond the layers of privilege that often overwhelm these conversations to see the heart of the issue: Davis is a woman, and in Texas, that's still a strike against her.