Wendy Davis is learning the perils of campaigning on her personal biography.
Since The Dallas Morning News raised questions this month about whether she had fudged some items in her biography, Ms. Davis has been under attack by her Republican opponent for governor, Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, and everyone from Bristol Palin to Rush Limbaugh for omitting the fact that her second husband helped pay for her Harvard Law School education and that her two children mostly stayed in Texas while she was there.
The controversy has turned her underdog campaign to become Texas’s first Democratic governor in 20 years into a hotbed of second-guessing over her omissions and has prompted a debate over culturally charged questions about a woman’s balance of work, ambition and parenthood.
In a state with a booming economy but simmering problems with its public schools and water infrastructure and with high rates of poverty and people without health insurance, one of the central questions hanging over the race is how long, exactly, Ms. Davis lived in a trailer in Fort Worth as a single mother.
Supporters of Ms. Davis and some analysts of gender issues in politics said the scrutiny of her choices as a working wife and mother was something no male candidate would be subject to. Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who once worked for Ms. Davis, pointed out that when Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor of Chicago, he left his family behind in Washington so his children could finish school.
“And nobody ever said a thing about it,” she said. “Think about the number of women who put their husbands through school, and the wife is a self-sacrificing role model.”
Alice Tripp, 67, a mother, grandmother and longtime gun lobbyist in Austin who is supporting Mr. Abbott, said the issue was about honesty, not gender.
“I’m a gun lobbyist, a job seldom thought of as being a woman’s job,” she said. “My criticism of Wendy Davis has nothing to do with her gender or her age or anything. If you’re going to run for politics, you have to understand you’re going to be fact-checked. And you best not wander and embellish your own story.”
For at least some of the fallout, Ms. Davis had herself to blame.
She has been traveling the state and the country since her 11-hour filibuster at the Texas Capitol last year to block abortion restrictions, largely campaigning on her narrative of rising from a 19-year-old single mother in a trailer to a Harvard Law School graduate and a state senator. But her campaign has essentially acknowledged that she misstated certain details and omitted certain facts in her biography.
For instance, she has said in interviews and in testimony in a redistricting lawsuit involving her State Senate district that she was divorced by the time she was 19 and lived as a single mother in a trailer. Her campaign has since clarified that while she separated at 19 and lived in the trailer with her daughter, she filed for divorce at 20 and the divorce became final when she was 21.
Nor had she focused on the role of her second husband, Jeff Davis, whom she divorced after a nearly 17-year marriage. He told The Dallas Morning News that she left him the day after the final payment was made on the loan for Harvard. She has denied the claim. The Dallas newspaper also said he had won custody of their two children. Her campaign said the couple had joint custody.
In a letter released Tuesday, Ms. Davis’s daughters, who were 2 and 8 when Ms. Davis entered Harvard, issued full-throated defenses of her, saying that she was always a presence in their lives, even when away at law school, and that they had initially gone to Boston with her.
Amber Davis, 31, called the criticism of her mother “ludicrous.”
Ms. Davis in 1993 with one of her daughters at her Harvard Law School graduation. Davis Family
The issue has produced a freewheeling debate on social media and cable television that sometimes followed familiar partisan lines and sometimes crossed them.
A blog post by Ms. Palin, a daughter of the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, whose teenage pregnancy became a social media moment of its own during the Republican convention, criticized Ms. Davis’s parenting history and compared Ms. Davis unfavorably to her mother.
“Gosh, children are sooo inconvenient, huh?” Ms. Palin wrote. “I’m glad my mother didn’t put motherhood on the shelf when she was elected to City Council, then became our mayor, then governor.”
In a speech on Tuesday, Ms. Davis, who is 50, said the controversy was a result of political attacks by Republicans.
“These false attacks say more about my opponent’s character than they do about me,” she said before a crowd of supporters at a dinner sponsored by the Travis County Democratic Party. She added: “For those who have mangled the story of my life, either carelessly or purposely, know this. I never gave up custody of my children, I never lost custody of my children, and to say otherwise is an absolute lie.”
Some Republicans agreed that the issue reflected a double standard for female candidates.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican consultant and president of the polling company WomanTrend, said, “They never ask the male candidates, how do you have all the time to play golf and have a girlfriend?”
When Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, was chosen as the Republican candidate for vice president, Ms. Conway said she remembered that commentators immediately began asking why she would accept the nomination with five children, including a baby with Down syndrome.
“If female voters conclude that a woman politician was a physically absent mother, they usually stop listening to the rest of your platform,” Ms. Conway said. “That’s a bridge too far. Your foremost responsibility is as a mother.”
Although gender roles have changed in the last few decades, with men shouldering more responsibility for raising children and women sharing more of the financial burden, traditional attitudes on parenting still hold sway for many voters, said W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
“On the one hand, people are embracing more flexible views of gender; they’re much more open to flexible working and family arrangements,” Mr. Wilcox said. “But at the same time, there is a more residual, traditional orientation that suggests that moms are the primary caretakers. And most married moms would prefer to work part time or in the home. In a way that might color their view of the situation.”
The impact the debate will have on her campaign is uncertain. But some say it is a reminder that for all the changes in gender roles in American life, much remains unchanged.
Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that for male candidates, having a family was almost always an asset because it humanized them and served as a support system. But for women who are candidates, having a family can be a liability because, Ms. Carroll said, “the expectation is still that women are supposed to be the primary caregivers.”