Pennebaker: Wendy Davis Needs to Take Back Her Story

Wendy Davis at her gubernatorial campaign launch.
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis at her gubernatorial campaign launch.

Look, I have no problem with men telling women’s stories—as long as the men in question have the sensitivity and genius of Tolstoy or Flaubert. But let’s not kid ourselves. The guys in the Republican Party and in most of the local news media aren’t going to be limning any fully realized female characters in the near future; they like their women simple and their stories pure.

Anyway, that’s also how we ended up with Wayne Slater’s article in The Dallas Morning News about Wendy Davis, an analysis that practically wheezed with horror that Davis’ life story was more complicated than her initial telling of it. (Well, whose isn’t? I keep thinking. But I know, I know—I need to move on.)

Briefly, Davis was accused of getting the timing wrong on her first divorce and on the length of time she lived in a trailer. Also, her daughters lived with Davis’ second husband much of the time their mother was at Harvard Law School, and the younger continued to live with her father after the Davises divorced. Oh, and Davis’ second husband helped pay her Harvard expenses.

The article also served up a stinging accusation that Davis was “ambitious”—an opinion considered so damning that the source of the quote was granted anonymity. I don’t know about you, but I’d worry about anyone who wasn’t ambitious and went to Harvard Law.

So what? I continue to think. But then I recall that so what? was also my initial reaction to the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry. Here was a war hero running against a president who hotfooted it to the National Guard, dodging domestic golf balls instead of foreign bullets during the Vietnam War, for crying out loud. What a sorry joke. How much damage could the Swift Boat allegations do?

Look at the 2004 presidential election and you see exactly how much damage can be done. When the other side takes control of a candidate’s life story—his or her strongest points, the events that molded that candidate’s life and bolstered her appeal to supporters—she can spend the rest of her campaign running defense and apologizing for minutiae, as the Davis campaign appears to be doing now.

So, stop. Cut the mea culpas.

Wendy Davis still has a powerful, inspiring life story—and I’d love to see her reclaim it loud and clear, without apology. She needs to wrench it back, in fact, and let the other side know it can’t tell her story for her… so get the hell out of her way.

Look at her past, and you realize she understands what it’s like to be young, female, underestimated, poor and uneducated in a state with scant sympathy for any of those attributes. She’s wrestled with marriage and motherhood, education and work, emerging with a promising political career and two adult daughters who clearly love her. And because of those struggles and her gutsy, unflinching filibuster in the Texas Senate, she has inspired so many of us who’d almost forgotten what political inspiration felt like in this state.

I don’t want to forget it again. I want to see Wendy Davis take back her story, complicated as it is, and defy anybody to take it from her. It’s her story, it’s a woman’s story—and sorry, guys, but most men can’t be trusted to tell it in all its complexity. You’ve gotten women wrong too many times, and it’s time for us to tell our own sagas.

Come to think of it, even Tolstoy or Flaubert, for all their genius, fell short in a critical way: Neither Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary made it out alive. This time around, in the 21st century, we’re looking for survivors.

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Published at 10:54 am CST