On Ann Romney, Hilary Rosen & Women In The 2012 Election

Election year silliness is in full swing.

Two days ago, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360″ to discuss the Republicans’ problems with women and Mitt Romney’s use of his wife, Ann Romney, on the campaign trail to talk about economic issues affecting women. 

“Guess what?” Rosen said. “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.” She also called Mitt “so old-fashioned when it comes to women.”

Ann Romney then joined Twitter and sent out her first tweet: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”  

And all hell broke loose.

Hilary Rosen clarified what she said on “Anderson Cooper” last night on Twitter (tweet posted above), writing: “When I said [on the show] Ann Romney never worked I meant she never had to care for her kids AND earn a paycheck like MOST American women! #TRUTH”

But it was too late.

Obama campaign advisors and friends responded to chastise Hilary Rosen. David Alexrod, a former top advisor for Obama, called Rosen’s comments “inappropriate and offensive.” Obama’s campaign manager tweeted, “I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly. … She should apologize.” (Yet despite the Obama campaign’s response, the Romney campaign is trying to tie Hilary Rosen to the president. Huffington Post notes that a top Romney advisor tweeted that Rosen is an “Obama advisor,” despite the fact that she isn’t employed by the Obama campaign.) 

My emotional reaction to hearing what Hilary Rosen said — context-free, just hearing the quote — was one of resentment. My mother is like Ann Romney: my mom stayed at home and raised five children, while my father was the family breadwinner. Mom didn’t need to work outside the home, so she didn’t. I realize my mother and my family were enormously economically privileged to be able to have this setup. Yet nothing raises my hackles more than when someone tries to say what my mom did, 24/7 for two decades, wasn’t work. There’s no question Hilary Rosen’s comment was dumb in that it was poorly phrased. 

But Hilary Rosen wasn’t wrong.

Most women are not like Ann Romney, or my mother. Women who are privileged enough to stay at home with their children (for any amount of time) do not know firsthand the struggles of working women in this country, especially income-earning mothers. Here are the facts about income-earning women, courtesy of PayEquity.org [PDF]:

  • Women accounted for 47 percent of the workforce in 2008.
  • Women are half of all multiple job-holders in 2008 and are the majority of temporary and part-time workers.
And one more tidbit of info?
  • Only 18 percent of families had a husband who worked outside the home, while the wife stayed at home, in 2007.

And here we have Mitt Romney, who just last week said his wife is his temperature-taker for women on the economy. “My wife … reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy,” Mitt Romney told a group of newspaper editors, according to The Washington Post

What Hilary Rosen seems to have meant to do, ineloquently, was ask why a millionaire is trotting out his millionairess wife to talk to women who are living paycheck to paycheck with the ever-present fear of employment over their heads. Working to survive as a financial breadwinner or co-breadwinner is different from not needing to work. It. Just. Is. 

That’s not to say a millionairess should sit down and shut up. Of course, plenty of rich, well-connected and privileged folks speak up on issues that don’t affect them personally: Brad Pitt’s rebuilding of New Orleans, the Gates family on eradicating malaria, Michelle Obama’s advocacy for military families, or the Kennedys and poverty. But we have to acknowledge the nuanced differences here: they may have a bystander’s empathy for other people’s hardships, but do not know those particular hardships firsthand. I wouldn’t pretend to understand what it’s like to send a husband or wife off to Afghanistan, or to have a black 17-year-old son shot on the street by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. If I tried to say, “I know just what that’s like!” I would fully expect to be told, “Bitch please.” Ann Romney’s life is very, very different from the life of, say, Amelia’s mother, who worked fulltime outside the home to contribute financially to her family. They are both women and they are both mothers, but that’s it.

To be sure, Ann Romney knows medical hardships — she has MS — but that’s not what Hilary Rosen referenced. (And, as far as I can see, no one from the Romney camp has officially said that’s why she didn’t work outside the home.) Instead, the Romney camp is happily fanning the flames of the “mommy wars”  — the way society pits working moms against stay-at-homes moms by accusing each of never being good enough — to twist Hilary Rosen’s stupid statement into a dig at Ann’s “choice,” as she put it. Of course, this has become a kerfluffle precisely because the GOP knows it has taken a hit with women after all their birth control nuttiness, abortion banning and slut-calling and it’s grabbing for straws. As Hilary Rosen herself wrote in a Huffington Post blog last night, “If they want to attack me and distract the public’s attention away from their nominee’s woeful record, it just demonstrates how much they just don’t get it.” 

This Ann Romney victimhood tale of woe is just a sideshow. Instead of these real or perceived grenade launched yesterday into the mommy wars, let’s focus our attention on the more salient issues that effect working women. Pay equity. Living wages. Affordable childcare. Maternity leave. Paternity leave. Access to birth control. Planning pregnancy. 

That’s what I want to talk about, Ann Romney and Mitt Romney. Do you?

[Huffington Post]
[Washington Post]
[PayEquity.org: Statistics About Professional Women (PDF)]
[Huffington Post: Hilary Rosen]

Contact the author of this post at [email protected] Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.

Image via Getty