Conservative media figures relied on gender norms to smear Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis as an uncaring mother after learning of her decision to give her ex-husband custody of her children as she pursued her law degree.
On January 18th, The Dallas Morning News reported that "some facts have been blurred" in Wendy Davis' personal story, including that she had been 21, not 19, when she divorced her first husband. The paper also reported that when Davis and her second husband were divorced in 2005, he was granted parental custody of her two children, one teenager and one adult.
Appearing on the January 21 edition of Fox News' Hannity, Ann Coulter attacked Davis and characterized her second husband as Davis' "sugar daddy," claiming that Davis did not raise her own children:
COULTER: The connotation is, you were supporting a family and raising her kids. She was neither supporting a family nor raising her kids. She married a sugar daddy, whom she asked to meet. He supported her. He raised the kids, while she went to Harvard Law School.
On the January 22 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum followed suit, maligning Davis for attending law school while her ex-husband had custody:
MACCALLUM: She has really staked so much of her story about who she is on being, you know, a woman who pulled herself up from nothing and raised her children. Turns out her husband raised her children back at home while she was at Harvard!
Breitbart's Michael Patrick Leahy devoted an entire post to the fact that Davis let her husband have custody of the children, calling it "one of the most striking details" in her life. Leahy accused Davis of leaving her children behind:
It was a difficult time for her children, whom she also left behind. Dru had just turned 15 and Amber was 21. As the Chronicle reported, "Dru, in ninth grade, stayed with him when Wendy left, [ex-husband Jeffry Davis] said. Amber, who was attending college, moved back with them."
Jeffry told the Chronicle "I think she had a midlife crisis. She wanted to be around a younger crowd."
As Slate's Amanda Marcotte points out, this latest attack on Davis suggests an underlying double standard wherein only men can leave their spouse to care for their children in order to pursue their careers (emphasis added):
It's hard to imagine any publication thinking that they've got a big story upon discovering that a male politician had a loyal wife who supported him financially and took care of things at home while he built up his career. If the genders were reversed, it seems obvious that a woman's support of her husband's career is simply an investment in her family's future. It's nearly impossible to imagine that anyone would think it's a form of abandonment for a divorced male politician to let his ex-wife have custody of a teenager.
And Think Progress suggests that it is Davis' defying gender roles that's causing right-wing media to lash out at her:
Because Jeff Davis took care of their daughters while Wendy went to law school, therefore flipping traditional gender roles in childcare, right-wing pundits are now calling her a bad mother who "apparently abandoned her children."
Despite conservative media's taking shots at Davis' parenting, her daughters, according to the Dallas Morning News, "are supporting their mother's campaign for governor. Both appear in a campaign video on her behalf." Davis also talked about her decision to let her ex-husband have custody: "I will tell you it was very important to me that Dru stay in her childhood home. It was a very difficult time in our life."