The rise of Wendy Davis as feminist icon can be traced almost completely to one exact moment: the publication of Vogue‘s lauding profile of the Texas gubernatorial candidate. In light of recent revelations, we went back to look at all the half-truths and misrepresentations Vogue printed about the Democratic star.
The profile darts around various aspects of Davis’s life: her relationship with her parents and children, her work in the Texas Senate, her shoes. It is a schizophrenic image that Vogue reveals of Davis as a woman. Davis has a “bootstraps background,” went into politics to help the poor, and “spearhead[ed] economic developments in blighted areas of Fort Worth” as a lawyer.
Yet Vogue follows her with an almost Bret Easton Ellis-like sensibility for expensive clothing brands and casually hints at her prodigious wealth. The family drinks Sancerre at a football party. Among the most important details of her filibuster, apparently, are her “pink Mizuno running shoes and a sky-blue Escada day coat concealing a back brace.” Yet Davis, the profile insists, is a woman of the people.
The profile also makes the same factual errors as many in the past, and that is a failure of the journalist but a sin only of the politician at hand. The profile claims that Davis’s mother had a sixth-grade education – a myth soundly debunked (Davis’ mother finished ninth grade). Davis claims to have been “recently out of the trailer park” at 25 despite having divorced at 21 (not 19 as she previously claimed), having only lived in the park with her mother for some months after the divorce.
Then there is the case of her legal work in Fort Worth. Vogue claims that she spent much of her time in Fort Worth’s government “spearheading economic developments in blighted areas of Fort Worth.” Quite an embellishment of what her political opponents alleged with evidence: that Davis was still working as a private corporate lawyer and channeling real estate contracts to herself from her political seat. Davis has denied the allegation, and few have tried to unwrap it further since she redefined herself as a social issues candidate.
It is very important to focus on the lies that Wendy Davis tells, the “unspecific” language she wields to embellish her story, because they highlight the flaws in her character. However, the Vogue profile, in light of this embellishment, serves to malign Davis’s image far beyond the simple mischaracterizations. Davis goes out of her way in the profile to appear a simple woman of simple tastes who is relatable to the middle class and true to her unrefined roots. She tells the magazine that she is “happy in Lululemon, with a glass of red wine, watching HGTV” – a quote designed to get plenty of press time and to distract from the fact that she has the means to be happy in said outfit with said wine and programming in a lavish neighborhood with her millionaire friends. The piece glosses over the fact that, for much of Davis’s life, she was a wealthy corporate lawyer and minor celebrity in her town.
Even of her time at Harvard, Vogue attempts to argue that Davis “fell in love with the human side of the law.” If she did, she showed it by becoming… a corporate lawyer specializing in antitrust defense suits.
Vogue does not gloss over every detail, but it doesn’t elaborate on the key ones, either. It mentions that Davis married a Princeton graduate and, by the time she was 25, “the couple spent their evenings mingling with Fort Worth’s political set.” Yet Davis was somehow still “only recently out of the trailer park” (that she might have never lived in) – and seems to want voters to believe that decades later, she still is.
She is part of a social elite with which few Americans will ever be able to interact, much less join. She may host “typically laid-back family gatherings” with her daughters, but when they sit around to cheer for a football team, they cheer for the team whose owners they know personally – a fact eldest daughter Amber tells Vogue casually, as if everyone knew the owner of an NFL team: “Mom’s best friend is Patti Kraft, whose father-in-law owns the Patriots, so we’re big fans.” At that comment and the family’s banter, Vogue has the nerve to highlight “the normality of it all.”
Many Democrats – who seem to have forgotten Davis’s past dalliances with the Republican Party – have indeed bought into the “normality” of her image. Conservatives who treat her as a one-issue candidate risk letting her sell herself as a populist unchallenged, a mistake the right cannot afford to make in a state as populist as Texas. Only in hindsight, with the truths of her background surfacing, can the big picture be made clear. Supporters do not want Davis to be a mere abortion advocate but Texas’s Evita: an empty populist image around which those looking for change can rally.