Gender, marriage, labor, and the “American Dream”


Wendy Davis

The Republicans–they just can’t help themselves!  First, we hear of Two-Buck Huck’s “Uncle Sugar” comments, and then we see that other Republicans are accusing Texas Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis of dishonesty because although she lived in a trailer park with her eldest daughter, she didn’t live long enough in a trailer park; and because her second husband helped send her to law school, we shouldn’t buy her hard-luck tale of scrappy bootstrapping.  Liza Mundy has some thoughts on the Davis fracas in Politico:

The kerfuffle began last weekend, with the publication of a profile in the Dallas Morning News that filled out gaps in her story, and continued all week as Davis was spun by her critics as a social climber, an ingrate, a neglectful mother. She has been chastised for starting out in her marriage as a dependent (golddigger!), and finishing it as a lawyer so financially successful that she was the one paying child support to her ex-husband (careerist harpy!).

The exact same things could be said about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but no one ever writes this way about male pols because our culture presumes that men are entitled to claim the benefit of women’s labor and pretend that everything they accomplish belongs to their efforts only.  Both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were the high-earning heavy-lifters in their marriages before their husbands ran for president.

Mundy concludes:

[Davis] is being subjected to a double standard. Behavior that would be unremarkable in a man—leaving your kids for prolonged periods in the capable hands of your spouse, as Barack Obama did, as did zillions of other fathers who campaigned for public office—is somehow suspect, even unnatural, in a mother. Following your fundamental nature; learning that there is a whole big world out there; adjusting your aspirations upward; getting some help from people who believe in you, people whose well-being is entangled with your own: this is the stuff of the typical American success story, the American dream. It’s a story we fall in love with, except, apparently, when the dreamer happens to be female.

That’s the way it has been in America for at least 500 years.  The “American Dream”–the struggle for upward mobility and respectability–is fundamentally a male story.  European invaders were appalled by the way that Native mothers were the authority figures in their families, and that paternity wasn’t a very important thing in Native family life.  European and Euro-American settlers welcomed unmarried men to the New World with promises that they could seek their fortunes, but unmarried women who arrived in the New World with the same goals in mind were presumed to be of low character, or even prostitutes.  (Only one category of unmarried European woman migrant wasn’t suspicious–and that was nuns.)

A lot has changed over the past 500 years, but somehow elite men manage to claim more than their share of women’s labor up to the present, and probably beyond:  white women who worked outside the home for money in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries were accused of being bad wives and careless mothers, while black women were accused of “female loaferism” if they wanted only to care for their own children and do their own housework instead of doing the child care and housework for a white family.  Women who want to improve their family’s economic fortunes and remain respectable have always had to walk an impossible line.  Mundy explains:

With the support of [second husband] Jeff Davis, who comes across in his comments as good-natured and generous, Wendy Davis was able to find her way into a life more materially comfortable and expansive. But it wasn’t a coddled, Real-Housewives-type existence of fluffy dogs and spa days. Instead, she went on to Texas Christian University, where she had financial aid and scholarships, did well, and from there to Harvard Law School. Jeff Davis reportedly paid for his wife’s last two years in college, cashed in his 401(k) to send her to law school, was the primary caregiver while she was away studying and took out a loan so she could finish. In a statement, Wendy Davis confirmed that he cashed in the retirement fund, but says “they” took out loans and that the children lived with her during her first year at Harvard, after which she commuted back and forth and her mom helped watch the girls. Though no phrase existed for what Wendy Davis was doing at the time, now we have one: She was leaning in.

In her case, being a married lady should count against her!  Going to college and law school and then winning a seat in the Texas legislature just proves what an ambitious and grasping woman she really is.  Clearly, Wendy Davis should have remained an uneducated, divorced single mother, because women like that run for governor and win all the time.

(Why don’t we apply the same tough standard to Joe Biden’s tragic story about being a young widower and having to raise his surviving children all by himself?  I’m not suggesting that we do, but think how weird and unseemly the skeptical journalism would be if his telling of his own life story were held to the Davis standard:  “he was a single father, but only for four and a half years, so how bereaved could he have been!  He had another daughter to forget the baby daughter who died in the car crash!  He remarried when his children were still young and expected their stepmother to raise them!”)

Good luck with that line, Republicans!  Because what Republican father or mother wouldn’t want their daughters to do as well as Wendy Davis?  There are a hell o f alot of middle-class women who might not like Davis’s politics, but they’re not going to pile on her for bothering to go to college and law school as a divorced and remarried mother.  If the American Dream is good enough for men, why punish the women who live it too (going uphill both ways, backwards, and in high heels?)

12 thoughts on “Gender, marriage, labor, and the “American Dream”

  1. Also interesting is the narrative surrounding Maureen McDonnell–that she was the true villain in the drama. It was *her* conniving and social ambitions that did poor clueless Bob McDonnell in politically.


  2. The contrast with the McDonnell marriage (at least as portrayed in the details that are currently coming out) is, indeed, striking. That marriage appears to have been — or at least is being portrayed as — one version of a “traditional” one, where the husband is the chief breadwinner and the wife the chief consumer (and the spender concealing expenditures lest the breadwinner wax rathful apparently is considered to be common, if not approved, practice).

    It sounds like Davis’ second husband invested in her — and wisely so (though perhaps less so if one is only looking at financial returns; she’d undoubtedly make more in private corporate practice, as the McDonells realized, and as, indeed, Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama did). There would be no similar criticism, I’m quite sure, if a wife had done the same for her husband (though there might be a few warnings about making sure that he had to pay back the 401K if the marriage ended), nor, I suspect, would there be the same level of criticism if Davis had simply angled for the family to spend a similar amount on a bigger house or fancier cars.

    Not only would I like to see Wendy Davis elected, given what I’ve learned here (and notwithstanding his somewhat unfortunate name), I like the idea of Jeff Davis as the first man of Texas. He’d set a good example for other husbands and fathers.


  3. It’s amazing that these Republican filth think any of this shit is going to resonate with anyone other than a bunch of extreme far-right-wing jeezus freak troglodytes. They just keep shooting their own fucken dickes off.


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  5. Good piece: and dare I say, The Davis’s had no choice if they were to stay married. One of the down sides to marriage is *community property*. This means that if you’ve got it, law school takes it — the only thing they aren’t allowed to take is your house, but they are allowed to demand that you take out loans against your 401 (k), which lots of people now do to send their kids to college.

    It should be pointed out that the Davis family did this on the square, which many people don’t. I had at least one well-to-do student who had an shielded an inheritance from Big Ivy Law by buying a condo; had a baby; and the baby-mama & baby were on public assistance.


  6. Couldn’t agree more with the post. One reservation on the margins: Bill Clinton has been and continues to be abused by right and left imbeciles for the last 22 years.

    He has been blamed for everything such creature deems going wrong: the great depression, climate change, poverty, corrupt banks, the left’s failures (especially to be actually left), Obama’s 1% policies and, of course, Hillary.


  7. I think that Texas is one of the places where the Republicans feel invulnerable enough, in a state-wide contest, that it’s like a free-kick: they can just trash out anybody they want to on any terms, and it will resonate with the groups they count on, but won’t reverberate enough with any hypothetical middle group to threaten their ability to prevail at the polls. One could hope they get a surprise this time.


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