Hilary Rosen, Ann Romney and spinning the ‘Mommy Wars’

It’s Wall Street, not wage-earning women, which threatens civilisation as we know it.

Romney has tried to argue that Obama was the one waging a 'War on Women' [EPA]

San Pedro, CA – A gaffe, sophisticates say, is when someone in Washington accidentally tells the truth. For not-so-sophisticates, a gaffe is when someone intentionally tells the truth, but screws up the messaging, sending everyone off into irrelevant hissy-fit land. That’s what happened on Day 2 of Mitt Romney’s general election campaign, when CNN contributor and Democratic political consultant Hilary Rosen, said the following [emphasis added]:

“What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying: ‘Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.’

Guess what, 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 – in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we – why do we worry about their future?

As Jessica Valenti pointed out at The Nation: “There’s nothing there about stay-at-home moms, or the idea that raising children isn’t work. Rosen was referring to the fact that Ann Romney – an incredibly rich and elite woman – likely does not understand the economic concerns of most American women.”

Indeed, it’s nothing but mendacious, hollow symbolism for Mitt Romney – Mr One Per Cent Of The One Per Cent – to invoke his ultra-wealthy, socially isolated wife as an expert on the views of average US women in the 99 per cent. Ann Romney might share a gender identity in common with the women whose support is galloping away from Romney, but she doesn’t share even the slightest common experience when it comes to understanding their economic concerns. And that, after all, is the supposed reason for Romney invoking her in the first place.

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Of course, Rosen screwed up her messaging by not explicitly saying “his wife has actually never worked for pay” or “worked outside the home“. But that was clearly Rosen’s meaning, as shown by what she said before and after that one sentence. At worst, it’s a sin of omission, not commission, which allowed her intended message to wildly and viciously misconstrued. Conservatives and Republicans say outrageous things all the time, and defend themselves automatically by claiming they were “quoted out of context”, whether it’s true or not. But somehow – with rare exceptions such as Valenti – liberals and Democrats seem incapable of mounting this defence, even when it’s entirely true, as it is here.

Reigniting ‘Mommy Wars’

And so we are told this is a terrible gaffe, because it reignites the “Mommy Wars”, the right-wing false framing of the 1970s that pits stay-at-home mothers defending traditional values against workplace feminists out to destroy civilisation as we know it. If that were actually possible, the distraction from the very real issues at hand would be a grave matter indeed. But 30-plus years of wage stagnation later, that dichotomy is more dead than Newt Gingrich’s presidential dreams. By now, everyone knows it is Wall Street, not wage-earning women, that actually threatens civilisation as we know it.

Everyone but the US ultra-retro political class, that is. They played the Rosen “gaffe” hissy-fit exactly to script – with swift denunciations of Rosen all around, concluding with her own apology. Yet, if anyone thinks this is going to make the Republican’s War on Women disappear as an issue this year, they need to wake up and smell the new millenium. First, as already noted, Rosen’s missing words were clearly implied from the larger context of her remarks. You can get overwrought for a day or two, but ultimately, there’s just no there there. Second, past highly promising GOP hissy-fits have helped alienate women voters, even as GOP strategists rubbed their hands with glee. There’s no reason to assume that this one will be any different.

Third, most importantly, the decades-old sharp divide between “homemakers” and “working mothers” is nowhere near what it once was. Virtually every mother in the US has some experience on both sides – or else deeply wishes she did. Millions of “homemakers” have worked outside the home before having children, and fully expect to work outside the home at some future point. And millions of “working moms” have cherished whatever time they’ve been able to take to be stay-at-home moms – far less time, of course, than their European counterparts with their “socialist” paid parental leave laws. But that’s sort of the point, really. Woman want more and better choices than are currently on offer – not fewer and worse ones, which is all that the retro “Mommy Wars” narrative has to offer. And the more women are pushed, the more those wants will turn to demands.

In short, the two once-essential roles have, through long experience, come to be seen as what they truly are – different situational social roles that women take on, either as a matter of choice, necessity, or some combination of the two. They are not definitions of who women are, either individually or collectively, and whichever role a 99 per cent woman may now be fulfilling, she very likely has enough first- or close second-hand experience to know the other role at least almost as well. And though the right-wing-favoured “Mommy Wars” – pitting one essential role against the other – may still be catnip for the political class, particularly in its all-male bastions, such as the Sunday talk shows, they are increasingly isolated and alone. For the vast majority of women in the US, a much more important political discussion would revolve around ways of making the dichotomy less extreme and more manageable, whichever side of the dichotomy a woman happens to be on at any given point in her life.

War on contraception

This is, of course, not just true of the “homemaker”/”working-mom” dichotomy that women face, it’s true of a whole slew of dichotomous choices that women are still confronted with, in part because their relative lack of political power forces them to live in a world that is disproportionately structured by the needs, interests and (often entirely unconscious) assumptions of men – particularly rich and powerful ones, such as Ann Romney’s husband.

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Quite naturally, the choice about when to have a child is usually the most important such choice. That’s why the GOP’s War on Contraception is the centrepiece of its War on Women, despite all the fruitless GOP spin to the contrary. Nothing could say “totally clueless” quite as clearly as that. Except, perhaps, the repeated failure to learn from this politically catastrophic mistake. But rather than understand – and correct – their initial mistake, Republicans only continue to compound it.

Trying to cloak the War on Contraception as really being a Democrat “War on Religion” was initially unbelievable for a number of different reasons – not the least of which was Antonin Scalia’s 1991 majority opinion in Smith, which established the precedent severing employment law regulations from First Amendment coverage for non-church institutions, such as hospitals and universities. The decision in turn lead the way for dozens of state laws, requiring contraception coverage that no-one previously called a “War on Religion”. The odour of a put-up job was unmistakable, particularly when the Catholic healthcare establishment expressed support for Obama’s compromise, which shifted all the cost from Catholic institutions and onto their insurance providers.

But the GOP only doubled down on this flimsy sham when its senators voted almost unanimously for the Blunt Amendment, which would have given any employer the “right” for any subjective “moral reason” to dictate employee health benefits. This is, transparently, less a move to protect religion than it is a move to resurrect feudalism, with workers more akin to property than to people in their own right. The message here ought to be perfectly clear: the more that Republicans insist on rhetorically defining “freedom” in ways that actually take away freedom from women, the more they will drive women away, no matter what sort of elite-approved spin they come up with.

Trying to spin Hilary Rosen’s micro-misspeaking into a “Mommy Wars” renewal is no more likely to succeed in fooling most women than anything else the GOP has tried so far. The ultimate reason is that GOP policies are bad for women on both sides of this increasingly artificial, temporary and permeable divide. GOP policies are bad for both women in the workplace, and women as homemakers as well.

Hostile to government stimulus

On the workplace side, Romney had already tried to argue that Obama was the one waging a “War on Women” because he had presided over a much worse job market for women than for men. But this argument depends on a funny accounting method – blaming Obama for jobs actually lost at the tail end of Bush’s term in office. Romney also uses this method to make Obama’s overall job record look worse than it is. Numerous folks quickly debunked this, including Steve Bennen at Maddowblog. It also obscures the basic reason why women have done worse under Obama as a whole: because men already did much worse under Bush, and their recovery, too, is happening sooner. Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo has charts and a tight explanation here.

On the other hand, more of women’s employment could have been better protected, if Republicans hadn’t been so hostile to government stimulus, especially that which was directed to sustaining state and local government spending on education and healthcare, where majority-female workforces predominated. (Republicans, recall, even argued that government spending didn’t create even a single job.) At Slate, Matthew Yglesias explained this more thoroughly in “Women’s Job Losses Under Obama Have Been Driven by GOP Obstruction“.

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As if Republicans haven’t already done enough to undermine women’s employment in the public sector, there will only be more such cuts down the line under the Ryan Budget, which will increase spending in the male-dominated military-industrial sector, but cut it everywhere else over time – hurting women disproportionately in the workplace, but also hurting women disproportionately in terms of benefits received. It’s this comprehensive attack on women’s welfare in a time of extreme hardship that makes the “Mommy Wars” spin look like just another loser for the GOP. As Yglesias goes on to point out:

“Political coalitions in the United States are actually bound together by some fairly deep logic. From a purely demographic perspective, the Democrats are more the party of women and from an economic policy perspective Democrats are more the party of high levels of social service employment. Not coincidentally, women are much more likely to employed in the sectors that Democrats favour.”

But Democrats post-Bush have also tried to be the party of infrastructure, too, a heavily male employment sector, as well as saving the US automobile industry – also a heavily male sector. With decades of culture war rhetoric to fight against, Democrats may not get all the credit they deserve on these two counts, for which Romney should thank his lucky stars. But the culture wars are at least partially in flux, and women are right at the centre of that. 

The more the conservatives and Republicans keep talking about “freedom” in a way that’s diametrically opposed to women’s first-hand experience, the more rapidly and deeply the dynamics of the US culture war will change. That’s why, when Ann Romney responded to Hilary Rosen by saying: “We need to respect choices that women make,” she easily eclipsed Rosen’s pseudo-gaffe with a very real gaffe of her own – whether anyone in the political elite seemed to notice or not.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg