The war on women, waged mostly by men, has given way to the war among women, waged by women on one another.
The current battle, joined anew last week in the presidential campaign, is over women’s identities as working or stay-at-home mothers. As such, it represents a step backward. At least the war on women deals with issues of public policy we could theoretically agree on: Should employees or employers decide whether the insurance policies we pay for will cover contraception? Should the federal government continue to fund health services for poor women such as those provided by Planned Parenthood?
Unfortunately, the outbreak of the war among women has drowned out any discussion about the issues raised by the war on women. The mommy wars lend themselves to no solution, especially when debated (if that’s the word for it) in a presidential campaign.
The casus belli was Hilary Rosen, a Washington political consultant and analyst on CNN but not an “Obama adviser,” as Mitt Romney’s staff quickly labeled her. Rosen criticized Romney for fobbing off women’s economic issues on his wife, Ann, who was not qualified to comment. In trying to make the point, Rosen forgot the decorum needed when treating such delicate issues and said that the mother of five “has actually never worked a day in her life.” Unlike North Korea’s rocket test, this missile launched.
Before you could say Murphy Brown, the confrontation took over the national conversation. President Barack Obama’s top staff threw Rosen under the bus, Michelle Obama tsk-tsked, even Barbara Bush waded in. The issue brought out the worst from the head of the Catholic League: “Lesbian Dem Hilary Rosen tells Ann Romney she never worked a day in her life. Unlike Rosen, who had to adopt kids, Ann raised 5 of her own.”
On Friday, tire tracks on her sleeve, Rosen canceled her appearance on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”
As a professional crisis manager and a mother herself, Rosen should know better than to dump on another mother: We do that only in whispers at the playground. It takes so little to stir up resentments. Scratch the tender skin of any mother, working or not, and there lies guilt (Emma has no friends! Is it something I did?) and anger (You have a lot of nerve telling me how to be a parent!).
I’ve seen the war from many sides. There is the stay-at-home mom who endures bored stares when the inevitable “And what do you do?” question is posed. There is the mother who wonders if the mother calling to arrange a play date really just wants a fill-in for the nanny.
More deeply, there is the working mother who wonders if she is meeting the emotional needs of family life. Does the rush of closing a sale, or the company of adults, or simply a paycheck make up for the enduring victories of motherhood, which mostly occur behind closed doors with results not apparent for a decade or more?
These questions were hardly asked, much less answered. Instead, the Romneys took false umbrage, as Ann tweeted what hard work it was raising her five boys. But they expressed their real feelings over the weekend at a fundraiser, according to NBC. The candidate called Rosen’s gaffe “a gift” and his wife seconded, saying it was “my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it.”
The Romneys’ joy over Ann’s “choice” is not one Mitt would give others. As governor of Massachusetts, he said that poor mothers should go to work, even with babies under 2 years old, if they wanted to receive any benefits. His policy, he explained, allowed them to enjoy “the dignity of work” a job confers.
If he weren’t desperate to close his 19-point gender gap, Romney wouldn’t expose his wife, who if poor would be jobless and undignified, on issues he’s not clear on. He’s for equal pay but maybe not for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which removes barriers for women to sue employers for wage discrimination. Nor do Republicans love family leave, the Violence Against Women Act, or federal funding to curb teenage pregnancy, which has helped bring rates to an all-time low. Let Ann weigh in -- but first, let’s hear from Mitt.
You don’t need to be struggling to help those who are, as FDR and JFK showed. But it helps to have some record of favoring policies aimed at those less privileged then yourself. Ann Romney worked at home, a luxury her husband denied other mothers. While many working mothers are one blown gasket in the old Ford away from being fired, Ann Romney has two Cadillacs with their very own elevator.
It’s easy to see why Obama weighed in as Switzerland, giving the standard boilerplate praising all mothers and adding that public officials’ spouses should be off-limits. Despite his statement, Ann Romney is a semi-fair target, as is Michelle Obama. They both involve themselves in debates of public importance.
The archetype of the fair-game-for-comment spouse is Hillary Clinton, who became the wrong kind of working mother when she remarked that she preferred lawyering to staying home and baking cookies. From that moment on, every woman lucky enough to have a baby and a byline held forth and offered advice on how to (or how not to) squeeze a child, a marriage and a high-powered career into a day that no legislation can stretch beyond 24 hours. Hillary was criticized no matter what she did.
The war on women could end someday. The mommy wars are endless. Look at what it took for Hillary to get out of the cross hairs: the impeachment of her husband, which transformed her into the Good Wife standing by her man. Then, when Hillary’s nest emptied, her husband settled down, and she took to wearing dark glasses and traveling the world kicking butt (and, in Colombia, kicking up her heels).
Now she has morphed into the Good Working Mother whose job just happens to be secretary of State. As such, she’s been neutralized -- and may run for president again. That could be a presidency to end all wars.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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