The Audacity of Being a Woman

Wendy Davis is being attacked for actions no one would dare criticize if she were a man.

Democratic candidate for Texas governor Wendy Davis takes part in a interview, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

No one would attack Davis for being ambitious if she were a man.

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Wendy Davis was probably never going to be much of a threat to Republicans. That was until the GOP turned her into the next Sandra Fluke.

Davis is a Democratic candidate for governor in Texas, which is a conservative state not expected to elect any Democrat to the job, let alone a woman who made national news by attempting to filibuster an anti-abortion bill. She's smart and has a (still) compelling personal story, but her party ID and politics make her battle for the governor's office an uphill fight.

Davis was (slightly) tarnished earlier this month, when enterprising newspaper reporters exposed exaggerations in her personal story. Davis had told a powerful tale of being a teen, single mother who lived in a trailer park, then went to Harvard Law School and became a state lawmaker. It turned out that wasn't exactly accurate; Davis was divorced at 21, not 19, and she lived in the trailer for just a brief period. Further, her now ex-husband helped put her through law school.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Those inconsistencies are fair game when one is running for governor; any candidate for office should expect to be thoroughly vetted. They were minor points; she didn't invent an entire history that didn't exist. But it was still to be expected that her Republican foes would use the misstatements against her.

However, they didn't stop there. Instead, GOPers have turned the matter into a much bigger issue, one which is directed not at total honesty but at the whole idea of women pursuing high-profile careers. One anonymous Republican called Davis "tremendously ambitious" – a characterization that still, appallingly, is considered an insult to women but honorable and natural for men. Another, again cowardly refusing to attach his or her name to such a sexist comment, told the Dallas Morning News that Davis was "not going to let family or raising children or anything else get in her way." It's bad enough that the Morning News gave cover to the speaker (personal insults should never be allowed in a story anonymously). But the comments reveal the real problem Davis's opponents have not just with her, but women in general.

She went to a fancy law school. Does that mean she's extremely intelligent and impressive? Not to the anonymous critic, who sees her professional success as a failure to do her real job, being a devoted (read: putting herself last) wife and mother. Why should she let anything get in her way if she wants to be governor? That's what men do, and that's one of the reasons men win a lot more elections. But Davis has been accused of abandoning her children to pursue her own career – a charge that is not only inherently sexist (fathers are not held to the same standards, or expected to interrupt professional schooling or jobs to stay home with their children) – but untrue, according to Davis's daughters. Wrote Dru Davis:

I have been reading and hearing so many untrue things about my mom and I want to set the record straight… And sadly I feel the need to be crystal clear on the malicious and false charge of abandonment as nothing could be further from the truth. My mom has always shared equally in the care and custody of my sister and me.

I can tell you that my mom was a remarkable mother and continues to be so to this day. She was there on my first day of school and my last, and so many days in between. She never missed a school performance or a parent-teacher conference. Even if that meant she had to miss something else important. My sister and I were always her first priority. She was there when I needed her and even when I thought I didn't.

And Davis's fight for access to abortion? Conservative pundit Erick Erickson dubbed her "Abortion Barbie," a moniker meant to diminish both her views on reproductive rights and her attractive appearance. The old insult of feminists in the 1970s was that the women fighting for abortion rights were the ones men wouldn't want to have sex with, anyway. What is Davis's particular threat to men – that she's very attractive, a Harvard Law School graduate and refuses to be a man's stay-at-home "Barbie"?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

The Republican party is, astonishingly, still struggling with how to address women. They blew a great chance to take back control of the Senate in the 2012 elections because of offensive comments about "legitimate" rape and the children of sexual assault being a "gift." It's two years later, and they're still not getting it, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee referring to women needing government to control their collective "libido."

This is the same thing that happened to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law School student who argued that she should get birth control coverage, like everyone else, under her health care plan, despite the fact that Georgetown is a Roman Catholic-affiliated school. Fluke might have been a minor player until radio show host Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut," and GOP committee leaders refused to allow her to testify on a hearing on the topic.

Republicans could have beaten Davis without too much trouble in red-state Texas. And they are still favored to win that race. But by demonizing Davis as a hyper-ambitious, bad woman who has the audacity to believe women can be professionals and lawmakers even if they also have families, they are creating a national symbol that can only work against them. Some prominent people in the Republican party seem to have a real problem with female power. They just further empowered one of their chief targets.