Dear Wendy Davis: Please Stop Talking About Your 'Story'

Dear Wendy Davis,

Please stop going on and on about your "story."

For one thing, you cannot win the Texas gubernatorial election on your "story." No woman can. Because our culture defines and constructs winning narratives in the public sphere as exclusively male-centered. That narrative is about competition and quest, grit and "crushing it."

The narrative of a mom heading off to Harvard Law School -- from Texas, no less, where no one is supposed to ever want to leave, especially for Harvard -- was never going to fly. It remains unthinkable for our culture: a mother who leaves her kids -- even for a short period of time -- in the care of anyone else, even her husband. This led at least one otherwise enlightened woman writer/podcaster to speculate, "Is she just all about ambition?" Women are as still defined by their biological imperative, which includes not just birthing babies but being tethered to them for (at least) 21 years. Any other goal is deemed mutually exclusive.

The only winning narrative for a "mom," if that's the story you're sticking with, is self-sacrifice. And it only works in the domestic sphere. The very whiff of a mother's ambition, even if it's ambition to help others and change the world, is read in our cultural narrative as selfish, neglectful, and undignified. Now, that's not to say that you can't be ambitious for your children. Consider Linda Armstrong, Lance's "mom." There's a really winning Texas story: the single mom whose sole ambition is to see her baby boy grow up big and strong and win the yellow jersey.

Decades ago, feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun analyzed the tyranny of narrative over women's lives. In the classic Writing a Woman's Life (which I re-read as often as I can, to remember why and how ambitious women have the cards stacked against them), the then-Columbia professor of English literature explained plainly and powerfully how stories work. They are the containers for our cultural ideals about gender (among everything else, like race, age, and sex). They set and constrain expectations about what a "Woman" is, what she must do, what she is permitted to do, and what she is forbidden to do. So what's left to us? "Women need to learn how publicly to declare their right to public power."

In short, narrative is a deeply engrained cultural process that defines, inflicts and enforces taboos -- against ambitious women, for example. You ignore its wrath at your own risk.

Brave women take the risk every day by declaring they're gay, or child-by-choice, or worth more than they're being paid. They resist the normative scripts of "Woman" at great personal cost, because they are committed to the biggest ambition of them all: to refuse the narratives that conspire to thwart women from living, or even imagining, their lives outside the old plot lines.

I wonder, why cast "mom" as your central character? Probably because you thought she would play as well in politics as she does on sitcoms and Facebook. What about the female heroes we can, and should, be creating? Like the intellectual who solves problems, the educator who opens minds, the visionary who creates new possibilities. We need more of them in this world; we already have enough warriors and athletes doing combat. Sadly, you're not the only woman punting in the political arena. I was so saddened to hear Elizabeth Warren, when running for the United States Senate, claim her conventional female identity as wife-and-mother and erase the identity that gave her the most credibility: as a Harvard professor doing the world-class research into consumer credit that launched her public career.

For another thing, your story doesn't matter to me. Like all stories, those of women and men alike, it is, by definition, a fiction. A spin. It doesn't tell me how you define and analyze the problems that face our communities, and how you're going to fix them. It doesn't tell me how you parse and anticipate the challenges ahead. Instead, what you reveal is how invested you are in the traditional female narrative.

Most pointedly, your story doesn't tell me how effective a governor you'll be. As a voter, that's what I want to know. Because, although ambition is necessary, it's not sufficient. If it were, Rick Perry would be president.