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.