By Cannon-Marie Green Milby and Jonathan S. Milby
In early April, struggling to connect with women voters and trailing President Obama by 19 percent in approval ratings among women, presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduced his wife Ann as his advisor on “women’s economic issues.”
On April 11, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen landed herself at the top of the list of “most hated” women in America by stating on Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees that, “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 why we worry about their future.”
When Rosen questioned Ann Romney’s qualifications to be an advisor on women’s economic issues, Rosen shattered the safekeeping of women in presidential politics. In the words of Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, it was “unbelievably shocking to hear another woman talk about Ann Romney in such a way.” Evidently, it has been hard for the public and pundits alike to come to terms with women disagreeing with each other.
The message taken away from Rosen’s answer to Cooper’s question was that stay-at-home mothers do not work. However, Rosen was actually arguing that Mitt Romney does not take women seriously, and she was right.
The woman problem
The difficulty is that no one can figure out how to accept women in politics at the presidential level, despite the fact that women voters are considered the most important voting bloc in the 2012 presidential election.
Since 1964, women have cast more votes than men in every presidential election. The exits polls from the 2008 presidential elections showed that women represent 53% of the electorate. In that election, women cast 70.4 million votes, almost 10 million more than men. Now, women voters are the golden goose of the 2012 presidential campaign.
However, women have continued to be bound by the certain rules governing their voting “etiquette.” Through twelve elections from 1964 to 2008, women voted within the yolk of three rules that Betty Friedan identified in her book The Feminine Mystique:
Rule #1: Women are not interested in politics, unless it’s related to an immediate need in the home, like the price of coffee.
Rule #2: Modern woman’s participation in politics is through her role as wife and mother.
Rule #3: Educated women have the unique opportunity to influence men and boys.
Unfailingly, women (as voters and as campaign participants) in presidential politics behaved, playing by these rules. They were familiar and navigable, and they protected the “gentle femininity” of women. In the White House, First Ladies remained typecast as the window to their husband’s humanity.
This seemed like good news, particularly for former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, because over 70 million votes are up for grabs in the 2012 presidential cycle, and all he had to do was get women voters to follow the Pied Piper: his wife. With little known about Ann Romney and few, if any, past controversies to address, Team Romney set out to strategically place this golden-haired beauty from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan at the front of the line. Women would follow Mrs. Romney for three simple reasons: mother of five boys, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, survivor of breast cancer.
Michelle Obama and Ann Romney symbolize the diversity of American women; in fact, their strong difference makes using them as appropriate role models for women problematic.
Michelle Obama was raised in Chicago by working-class parents and Ivy League educated. She married after establishing her career, became a mother in her mid-thirties, and still held her position with University of Chicago Medical Center on a part-time basis during the 2008 presidential primary cycle, eventually taking an unpaid leave of absence to work on Barack’s campaign.
In contrast, Ann Romney was raised in Michigan and attended an all-girls private school. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a concentration in French. Ann Romney married at nineteen and had her first of five sons one year later. She stayed home to raise her children.
Michelle Obama is the modern woman juggling being a wife, mother, and career woman. Ann Romney is a throwback to the 1960s.
Somehow, when Rosen questioned Ann Romney’s political chops as an economic advisor, the situation was played out by the media and others as a vicious attack, making Ann Romney the perceived victim of the latest “assault” on traditional family values.
Michelle Obama gracefully and strategically rose to the occasion tweeting that “every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected”— a statement that did not really take a position on what had become an explosive issue.
This exchange about the authority of a woman to speak on behalf of all American women is a variation on a theme from 2008. Many will remember Joe the Plumber from the McCain campaign. In essence, Joe set a new precedent that made anyone an expert on policy issues simply by virtue of being an American. This authority was so powerful that it was politically unquestionable.
The same holds true when women are plugged into this equation. Here’s the political calculus: Ann Romney was presented as a qualified advisor on women’s economic issues by virtue of being a woman. When Rosen questioned Ann Romney’s qualifications for the position, Rosen broke an unspoken rule of polite society. Rosen became the Hester Prynne of female politics, branded with a scarlet letter.
With more women in politics—on both sides of the aisle—women are more closely assessing the people chosen to speak on their behalf. In most cases, this is considered normal and advisable. Would-be experts are generally instructed to neither embellish their credentials nor use irrelevant personal information to demonstrate their qualifications.
Mitt Romney broke these rules by naming his wife as his expert on women’s economic issues. Working in the home to raise children is a noble and certainly difficult job. However, that alone does not automatically qualify one as an expert on women’s economic issues, particularly when Ann Romney and her family have never dealt with the financial issues facing most American women. Relevant education, knowledge, and experience are necessary to be an advisor on women’s economic issues, and it appears that Ann Romney is short in all of those areas.
This distinction matters. Women voters have concerns about specific policy issues. Women are smart and informed, and do not just want a woman with whom to connect; they want the opportunity to speak, and they expect to be heard. And, if an advisor must be chosen to communicate their policy positions, women voters want a presidential candidate to use the same criteria and judgment he or she would use in vetting an advisor on any other policy issue—not just default to the woman closest by.