The right’s single-mom mistake: Why their latest attacks are clueless and doomed

Republicans are fast losing ground with single moms -- and falsely painting Wendy Davis as a gold digger won't help

Topics: Wendy Davis, single mothers, Single moms, Editor's Picks, women, GOP, The Right, Conservatives, ,

The right's single-mom mistake: Why their latest attacks are clueless and doomedWendy Davis (Credit: AP/Eric Gay)

When I was in law school at Harvard, I didn’t know Wendy Davis, the Democratic Texas state senator now running for governor of Texas, although we were in the same graduating class. But Davis’ story reminds me of other young mothers I knew at Harvard, some of whom were single mothers. Whether married or single, the mothers in our class were fortunate enough to have a network that assisted them in raising their children while they pursued their educational and career dreams. Each woman’s network was unique to her circumstances, but generally consisted of a supportive co-parent (whether a husband or ex-husband, a partner, a step-parent, or a combination of the above) and extensive support from family and friends who believed the rewards of a Harvard Law School education were worth the short-term sacrifice.

Conservatives are now attempting to discredit Davis’s up-by-her-bootstraps story by questioning the period Davis spent as a single mother between her first and second marriages, and by casting her as a bad mother for supposedly putting her career before her children. These efforts rightly have been derided as sexist. But while the broadsides at Davis are rapidly approaching the point of parody, they also illustrate why Republicans have had such a hard time attracting unmarried women voters in recent elections. Given the GOP’s growing unpopularity with this group, attacking Davis’ single mother story looks like a losing strategy.

By blasting Davis for her so-called lies, Republicans hope to erode Davis’ support among women. Naomi Schaefer Riley, in a biting New York Post Op-Ed titled “Wendy Davis has no future in politics,” declared that “Americans will forgive a lot in a politician. But a woman who leaves her kids is just beyond the pale.” Ann Coulter, with her usual subtlety, called Davis a “gold-digger who found a sugar daddy to raise her kids and pay for her education.”

Schaefer Riley and Coulter are correct that there are women who will be turned off by Davis’ story – namely, conservative women who were already turned off by Davis’ allegiance to the Democratic Party and her pro-choice stance. But conservative pundits and commentators are, once again, underestimating the ability of women voters to determine for themselves what does and doesn’t appeal to them.

That Davis has made single motherhood such a prominent part of her story is significant because Davis doesn’t fit the conservative stereotype of a single mother. Conservatives often use “single mothers” as code for the more noxious term “welfare queen,” to evoke the specter of young, uneducated black women dependent on handouts from their “Uncle Sugar.” When conservatives argue that single mothers are to blame for everything from gun violence to the economic recession, they’re generally not referring to women who look like Wendy Davis. Davis puts a different face on single motherhood – a face that more closely resembles what single motherhood in America actually looks like.

Although the percentage of black children born to single mothers (72 percent) is higher than that figure for white children (29 percent), nearly 3 million more white children than black children are living in single-parent households. And the number of single-mother-helmed households is increasing. According to data published by the National Center for Health Statistics, the share of births to unmarried women has risen to 41 percent. A report from the Pew Research Center indicates that 87 percent of those single mothers have never been married. Conservatives use these figures to lament the moral decline of modern society, but they fail to recognize that the decline in marriage rates and concomitant rise in unwed births is the result of economic instability, not the cause of it.

Continuing to disparage unmarried women voters, including single mothers, is not just sexist – it is costing Republicans elections. Much has been made in recent months of a “marriage gap” in GOP support: Republicans maintain strong support among married white women, but unmarried women voters of all races and married women of color tend to vote Democrat. The reelection of President Obama in 2012 and the election of Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia in 2013 both were fueled by strong support among unmarried women and women of color, married and unmarried. Demonizing unmarried women and single mothers as sluts who want handouts may keep the GOP’s conservative base happy, but it is not a viable strategy for attracting them to the Republican Party.

As a single mother myself, I believe single mothers are not likely to be bothered by the much-ballyhooed discrepancies in Davis’ biography. Davis was in fact a single mother when she separated from her first husband at 19, even if her divorce didn’t become final until she was 21. The financial and emotional support Davis received from her second husband, Jeff, is the type of support most people in committed relationships expect from their partners, and hardly counts as gold digging. As Jessica Valenti quipped on Twitter, “Republicans want women to marry their way out of poverty, unless you’re Wendy Davis – then you’re just a gold digger.” Davis’ post-divorce relationship with Jeff Davis is an encouraging example of the type of co-parenting relationship most of us single mothers hope to have with our children’s fathers. The feminization of Jeff Davis as “a better single mother than Wendy Davis” reflects a level of blindness to the ways that modern parenting has changed from traditional norms.

Davis said she told her story not because it was unique, but because it is not.  In today’s society, that is certainly true. The wonderful site Beyond Baby Mamas showcases the stories of single mothers of color as a way to show that stereotypical images are woefully inadequate and uncharacteristic. Beyond Baby Mamas founder Stacia L. Brown has written for Salon about the dangers of leaving single moms of color out of discussions on motherhood. Brown’s thesis applies equally to all single mothers, who are generally left out of or ignored in conversations about “having it all.” And someone like Wendy Davis putting a different face on single motherhood could finally be one way to ensure that the voices of single mothers are heard.

The single parenting paradigm is not going to disappear. Davis’ story shows it is time politicians on both sides of the political aisle began paying closer attention to single mothers’ stories, and their needs.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...