Texas is looking for a good governor, not a good mother.
Let me begin by saying, if The New York Times Magazine calls and wants to do a cover story on you, respond “Not now.”
I say that because of the most recent cover story on Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator who will run for governor of Texas. Her close-up photograph immediately grabbed my attention. “What’s going on with that mole?” I wondered.
This was not a friendly photograph. The picture looked dated, like an old Kodak, and Davis’s brown roots show on blond tresses that look a little stringy. Pores and wrinkles are prominent. The impression was unsettling, so I called my older sister.
Ann is in the art world in San Francisco and has a highly educated as well as innate sense of aesthetics, so I wanted to know what she thought. She said that this is the new deal in journalistic photography, the polar opposite of the airbrushed photos of models and celebrities in fashion magazines. She recalled a similarly unbecoming photograph of a man in The New Yorker magazine.
The new thing is worse than realistic. Of course the style will pass, which is why I recommend that you postpone that interview.
The photograph of Davis in the interior of the magazine is much more becoming, even though a nostril hair may be visible. She is actually a very attractive woman, but she is currently dealing with the shadow side of notoriety, an examination of her personal life as critical as the photograph. The title of the article by Robert Draper, “The Legend of Wendy Davis,” gives his premise away: Wendy Davis has air-brushed the story of her life.
It’s tough being a woman sometimes, and needing always to look good if you’re famous is part of the problem. Politics are particularly challenging, especially for women of Davis’s era who are bridging old expectations and larger ambitions.
The gubernatorial candidate has told a “Texas Story” of moving up from life in a trailer park to graduating from Harvard Law School cum laude while raising two daughters. There were two husbands along the way, and the last leg of the journey with the one who was well-to-do may have been easier than she intimated.
The focus now seems to be on one detail: When she was in Harvard Law School, did she go back to Texas to be with her daughters five days every 10 days as she claimed, every two weeks for a long weekend as one daughter remembers, or once a month as her former husband recalls? A matter of critical importance, certainly.
Now there is also a potentially troubling association with the abortion issue. Davis was a virtual unknown outside the state until June 2013 when she filibustered a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and setting requirements that would effectively close many women’s health clinics.
In preparing for the 12-hour ordeal, during which time she would not be allowed a bathroom break, Davis had a catheter inserted. Facing impossible odds, she nevertheless won and became a national sensation. Her triumph was short-lived, however. Governor Rick Perry made an end run a month later by calling a special session that enabled the bill to pass.
Davis has since revealed that it was the second part of the legislation, the requirements that would reduce women’s access to health care, that she found most onerous. With regard to the first part, she observed that the incidence of abortions after 20 weeks is extremely rare. In part because of the stand she took on this issue, there is this sense of inquiry afoot about the convenience of having had children of her own, a question she has addressed by emphasizing her maternal role.
Author Draper does acknowledge the conflicting expectations that women have to deal with. In politics, they become especially prominent. One has begun to hear the voices snapping at the heels of Hillary Clinton. “Was Bill unfaithful because she wasn’t sexual enough? Did she stand by her man for political reasons? How good a mother was she to Chelsea? Why can’t she settle on a becoming hair-do?”
Draper ends his article by seeming to write Wendy Davis off for similar, feminine-sensitive reasons. He says that her narrative had created “a portrait of herself as modern-day Supermom, a woman who existed only in our imaginations.”
My inner response was kind of like, “Oh, come on. Look at her home state. The big story, Texaggeration, is the standard there. If you don’t have a big story, nobody pays attention. And the cum laude, the Senate seat, and the successful filibuster are plenty big. The state is looking for a good governor, not a good mother.”
I grew up in Texas, which adds to the interest, and I will be watching this election closely for many reasons. One is curiosity about what’s going on in the public psyche. Davis’s opponent will be Greg Abbott, attorney general, who has a much larger war chest. Abbott became a paraplegic in 1984 when an oak tree fell on him while he was jogging after a storm.
The oak tree is a symbol of courage and power and of that which stands strong through all things, which is certainly true of Abbott. Nevertheless, he is a man in a wheelchair, and the unsettling reality of disability will be visible throughout this campaign.
And there is something more afoot, the thing called timing that works both ways. Just think: A fit young man goes out for a run one morning and is crushed by a falling tree. On the other hand, an obscure legislator takes to the floor to fight for principle in the face of impossible odds and becomes famous overnight. There is no way to tell what issues will be up for the election and which way the timing will break for the candidates. However, I would not write Wendy Davis off. I would give her some space so that we can see her at normal perspective, not pore level.
I will also give her the last word. At one point in her interview, Davis commented that Texas has a great story to tell. However, the job of state leaders, she went on, is not to brag but “to deliver on the promise that everyone has a place in that story.” That would include Wendy Davis.