In 1990, before Ann Richards had even launched her successful campaign for governor of Texas, an anonymous letter-writer tried to derail her campaign by misrepresenting everything about her, including her devotion to her children.
One batch of letters went to small-town newspaper editors and some TV and radio stations. Another batch went to Baptist preachers around the state.
Author Jan Reid includes the letter to preachers in his book “Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards.” The letter used Richards’ admitted vulnerabilities – she was a recovering alcoholic and divorced – to depict her as a degenerate with “contempt for the Lord.”
Richards was also a mother. Note the language:
“This woman has been an unfit wife and mother.”
“Should children have as an example the state’s highest leader a woman who abandoned her husband?”
“A woman who abandoned her children.”
That is how it played out in Texas in 1990 when one of its women dared to take on the Republican power establishment.
This year, they’ve got Twitter.
Texas Democrat Wendy Davis is famous for tying on pink sneakers and leading last year’s Senate filibuster for abortion rights. Now she’s running for governor. Four days after announcing that she and a group that supports her raised $12.2 million in the past six months, Republican pundits were all over social media, attacking her.
Not for her political views, but for her role as a mother.
The springboard for this latest round of ridiculousness was a Dallas Morning News story about how Davis didn’t get just right the minutiae of her life as a single mother.
Reporter Wayne Slater wrote, in the third paragraph, that “the basic elements of the narrative are true.” However, she tweaked her bio.
For example, in a recent federal lawsuit over redistricting, Davis said she divorced at 19, but she was 21 when the divorce was final. As she has subsequently explained, she became a single mother “sometime between 19 and 20.”
I was a single mother for a decade, and I understand how Davis could make the mistake. Divorce is an earthquake. When the foundation of your life splits open, you spend a lot of time trying to find even the smallest patch of hope to hang on to. For most mothers, the biggest difference between separation and divorce is that degree of uncertainty about your children’s future, too much of which is in the hands of strangers.
By the way, I had to check my own records today to remember how old I was when I separated from my children’s father and the date of our divorce two years later. I can, however, give you an hour-by-hour account of the day my daughter and I moved out. The hardest memories endure.
The Dallas Morning News story also detailed how Davis lived in a mobile home for only a few months – whew – and her second husband helped her financially to finish college and Harvard Law School. He also – and this is what ignited the right-wing pundits – was the primary caregiver while Davis attended Harvard and the custodial parent after their divorce. It was important, Davis told the News, that her younger daughter stay in her childhood home for her high school years.
The anonymous letter-writer of the ‘90s is today’s anonymous male quote in the Dallas newspaper story: “Wendy is tremendously ambitious. She’s not going to let family or raising children or anything else get in her way.”
A sampling of right-wing Twitter responses, not to be read if you just ate:
Erick Erickson, who calls Davis “Abortion Barbie”: “Don’t understand the ppl saying if Wendy Davis were a man she could get away with ditching her kids. No, s/he couldn’t.”
Dana Loesch: “At the very least I think we can all agree that you have to at least have custody of your children to claim single parenthood.”
Ben Shapiro: “The real question: if you wear pink shoes, how fast can you run away from your parental responsibilities?”
Rush Limbaugh – oh, never mind.
Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy in Fort Worth found someone who knows Davis well and wasn’t afraid to be identified. Her name is Becky Haskin. She’s a Republican and a colleague from Davis’ City Council days.
“She did what she had to do for her daughters,” Haskin told Kennedy. “If this involved a man running for office, none of this would ever come up. It’s so sad. Every time I ran, somebody said I needed to be home with my kids. Nobody ever talks about men being responsible parents.”
Haskin has endorsed Republicans in this election cycle, but she told Kennedy she’s supporting Davis for governor.
Call that a win for the future governor of Texas.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.