The Right Subjects Wendy Davis to Litmus Tests No Male Would Ever Face

New revelations about the Texas gubernatorial candidate’s family life have prompted frenzied—and just plain wrong—denunciations from conservatives.

Mike Stone/Reuters

It seems that Wendy Davis needs to learn her place.

Since news broke in the Dallas Morning News that the Texas gubernatorial candidate had support from her then-husband while she attended Harvard Law School, conservatives have been apoplectic.

The right has been heaping scorn upon Davis because she and her husband decided that their children should stay in Texas with him while she studied in Boston. Ben Shapiro of Brietbart tweeted, “The real question: if you wear pink shoes, how fast can you run away from your parental responsibilities?” RedState blogger Erick Erickson tweeted, ​"So Abortion Barbie had a Sugar Daddy Ken"​ and then, “Just think, if Wendy Davis gets elected, she could create “take your daughter to her dad” day. Ann Coulter complained, “I'm … stuck on her leaving her kids behind while she headed off to a law school 1,500 miles away.”

For crying out loud, she didn’t leave her children on the side of the road. She left them to live with their father. It’s fair to criticize Davis for her misleading bio that implied she had been a single mother during law school. Instead, a misogynistic mob is determined to punish her for her parenting choices.

It’s sad that the attacks on Davis are coming uniformly from people who call themselves “pro-life.” Many women in Davis’s position–pregnant and unmarried at 18 years old–would have gotten an abortion. She didn’t. But that’s not enough to satisfy the right. Once she had the baby–and another with her second husband–she was expected to follow the right’s designated script or suffer dearly for it.

“Wendy is tremendously ambitious,” an anonymous source told the Dallas Morning News. “She’s not going to let family or raising children or anything else get in her way.” (Unlike her male colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives, who apparently sit at home darning their children’s socks.) Here’s a news flash: people who run for office are typically ambitious. But only with women is ambition treated as something shameful.

The double standard is reminiscent of how Sarah Palin was treated when she chose to run for vice president in 2008. Her candidacy set off a controversy about whether she was neglecting her children, in particular her special-needs baby. Back then, conservatives were the ones mostly defending her and expressing outrage that anyone would question her decision. Now they see attacking a woman’s parenting choices as fair game.

Nancy Pelosi spoke of the obsession with women’s choices in a 2011 interview, “When I first ran for public office, which is now over 20 years ago, although my youngest was a senior in high school, the question I was most frequently asked was, ‘Who’s going to be taking care of your children?’ And, of course, it’s one of those questions I don’t think a man has ever been asked when he runs for office.”

Becky Haskins, a Republican who served with Wendy Davis on the Fort Worth City Council, blasted the sexist attacks. She told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Tuesday that Davis “did what she needed to do for her daughters.” She added, “If this involved a man running for office, none of this would ever come up. It’s so sad. Every time I ran, somebody said I needed to be home with my kids. Nobody ever talks about men being responsible parents.”

When Davis divorced, custody was awarded to her husband. This is proof to right-wingers that she’s a bad person. Rush Limbaugh intoned on his show, “Do you know how hard it is for a mother to lose custody these days?" But Davis didn’t “lose” custody of her children. She agreed that her ex-husband should have custody of their two children, and she paid him child support.

Not that it is anyone’s business. How many male candidates have been raked over the coals because their ex-wives have full custody? Zero. For that matter, nobody is accusing male members of Congress who live in Washington, D.C. (while their families reside elsewhere) of abdicating their parental responsibility.

Yet, a headline of a New York Post column by Naomi Schaefer Riley blared, “She Gave Up Her Kids: Davis has no future in politics.” Where were the headlines claiming the unfitness of male Republican candidates who ditched wives with whom they had children (think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani)? Or are we to understand that conservatives believe that cheating on a spouse and getting divorced is not relevant, but giving your husband full custody of a child is? Giuliani was even estranged from his children during his presidential run, but this did not have conservatives trying to run him out of polite society. Of course, he’s not a woman.

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In a Breitbart article, a male writer expressed horror that Davis, “apparently eager to advance her career,” relinquished custody of her children. But Davis never has said exactly why she made this decision, except to say that, “It’s not a good time for me right now.” It’s reasonable to assume she made the best decision she could for her children. Which is probably why, in the end, both of Davis’s daughters are supporting her candidacy.