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Wily Wendy: Media, Political Opponents Employ Sexist Rhetoric Against Wendy Davis Campaign

Right-wing pundits and politicians are latching onto a few minor discrepancies in Wendy Davis’ life story to smear the state senator with traditionally sexist tropes.

Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, speaks with State Senator Wendy Davis on September 29, 2013.

Soon after her gubernatorial campaign pulled in a fundraising boost, the Dallas Morning News reported during the weekend on discrepancies in Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s life story. Her opponents and right-wing pundits have latched onto her personal history to smear Davis with sexist tropes.

The Dallas Morning News clarified Sunday that Davis was 21 when she was divorced, not a teenager, and lived only a few months in a mobile home during her separation before moving into an apartment with her first daughter. But the report described the discrepancies as fairly common, with the News’s reporter Wayne Slater writing that “the basic elements of the narrative are true, but the full story of Davis’ life is more complicated, as often happens when public figures aim to define themselves.”

But Davis’s political opponents are fueling a growing, and gendered, controversy over her biography, accusing her of lying about her personal struggles and, essentially, gold digging — by manipulating her ex-husband to pay for her Harvard school loans. The rhetoric invokes a well-known sexist archetype of a bad mother who neglects her children to get ahead while using her feminine, sexual wiles to manipulate men.

Davis was thrust into the national spotlight after she initially thwarted Texas Republicans’ plans to pass House Bill 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill, with a bold 11-hour filibuster. About one-third of Texas abortion providers stopped providing abortions after the bill became law in November 2013.

The Davis campaign responded to the attacks on her life’s narrative Monday by issuing an open letter to her supporters and her opponents and saying Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s attack won’t undermine her life’s endeavors. The letter states:

Mine is a story about a teenage single mother who struggled to keep her young family afloat. It’s a story about a young woman who was given a precious opportunity to work her way up in the world. It’s a story about resiliency, and sacrifice, and perseverance.

And you’re damn right it’s a true story.

Throughout this campaign, I’ve shared that story – not because it’s unique, but because it isn’t.

But the value of the discrepancies in her narrative, as portrayed in the right-wing media and mainstream media, have been misleading at best. Her divorce at 21 simply speaks to the lag in time between her separation and her final court date.

The News’s story implies that Davis’s ex-husband, Jeff Davis, was the sole source of income toward Davis’s student loans. Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) to help pay for the loan, which Davis said she took an active role in paying back as she was a practicing lawyer during the time in 1993.

Other right-wing pundits, including Fox News contributor Erick Erickson and radio host Mark Levin, have used her divorce from Jeff Davis to paint Davis as a bad mother and wife. Erickson wrote a post asserting Jeff Davis asked a court to order her not to use drugs before seeing their children, based on the court’s temporary restraining order issued after Jeff Davis won custody. Levin and others have cited Jeff Davis’s allegations of adultery against Davis as evidence that she is unfit for political office.

But Hannah Groch-Begley at Media Matters points out that temporary restraining orders are employed regularly in divorce cases involving children and commonly contain limits on drug and alcohol use.

“I would be hard-pressed to imagine a story like this still having legs three days later if this was a rising male star of Texas politics,” says Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters. While he condemned the way the right-wing media handled the story, he also gave the mainstream media “a B, B-minus” grade in the way it framed the issues with Davis’s biography as well.

“It’s kind of weird. [The right-wing media’s] basic allegation is that she wasn’t poor enough, and this comes from a conservative movement that basically hates poor people and certainly discourages poor single moms,” Boehlert said. He said the sexist attacks against Davis in Texas were just one example in a long history of double-standards in media coverage of female politicians and political candidates.

Further, as the historic Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade celebrates its 41st anniversary this week, women are still struggling for abortion rights, independence and equality in the state where the case originated. For women working in the Texas Legislature at Austin, the problem of blatant misogyny in the legislature is well known. Texas Observer reporter Olivia Messer documented her own experience with sex discrimination, as well as the experiences of powerful women legislators, at the Austin Capitol, writing:

Even the most powerful women in the Legislature experience it. When I started interviewing women lawmakers, they all — Republican and Democrat, House and Senate, rural and urban – said that being a woman in the statehouse is more difficult than being a man. Some told of senators ogling women on the Senate floor or watching porn on iPads and on state-owned computers, of legislators hitting on female staffers or using them to help them meet women, and of hundreds of little comments in public and private that women had to brush off to go about their day. Some said they often felt marginalized and not listened to — that the sexism in the Legislature made their jobs harder and, at times, produced public policy hostile to women.

Moreover, it’s this legacy of a rampant “good ol’ boys’ club” in the Texas Legislature that makes Davis’s 11-hour filibuster and her gubernatorial candidacy remarkable.

“I personally am deeply inspired by her life story,” says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “[Davis] breaks up with her husband when she’s 19, but they don’t get actually divorced until she’s 21. I can’t tell you how many women I know who have located their breakup to the time they physically separated from their husband. I have had that experience myself. It took two years for my divorce to be final,” O’Neill told Truthout.

O’Neill said that Davis represents a solution to a growing disconnect between what average voters in the U.S. want in terms of access to reproductive rights, and what is happening in state legislatures across the country that are defunding health clinics and passing restrictive laws concerning reproductive rights 41 years after Roe.

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