Myths, Moms, and Power
By Joseph Anthony
With so many Republican targets to aim at, it might seem churlish to attack Ann Romney. She is probably a nice woman. And I’m sure she’s a great mom. But her speech at the Republican convention, while primarily intended to re-introduce Mitt to the country as loving husband and all-around nice guy, is also a broadside in the cultural wars. It needs to be answered. I don’t mean the parts where she assumes we’re idiots—the early struggles she reports of she and the boy she loved making the ironing board in their basement apartment do double duty as dining room table. That’s just old-fashioned political mythmaking: Abe the rail splitter. Or worse, William Henry Harrison the plantation slave –owner turned poor boy in a cabin. Nobody believes those stories except the terminally smug. No, it’s her comments about women, power and love that need to be answered.
Tonight I want to talk to you about love.
Ann Romney is an expert on love. She knows more about love than I do. Why? Well, the answer is simple. She’s a woman. She’s not just a woman; she’s a mother.
I want to talk to you about that love so deep only a mother can fathom it…
Mrs. Romney is making an ancient claim here—that women, mothers, know more about certain profound feelings than men do. This praise of motherhood, as American as Apple-pie, is praise that separates. She devotes the center of her speech to this mother-praise.
It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.
It’s the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together. We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.
You know it’s true, don’t you?
You’re the ones who always have to do a little more.
I’m not sure if men really understand this, but I don’t think there’s a woman in America who really expects her life to be easy. In our own ways, we all know better!
Well, who could argue with a lot of this? I might agree that women’s lives are generally harder than men’s. I might argue that our political, economic, and social structure make it so, but the conclusion would still be there. And leaving room for huge numbers of exceptions, I’d even agree that women work harder to keep a family emotionally together than do many men. Think indifferent fathers and until a few years ago, almost nobody would be too shocked. They might disapprove but they saved their true opprobrium for that monster, the indifferent mother.
But Ann Romney’s motives in this speech aren’t meant to get us into a dinner-time debate over which parent cares more, which parent learns better the minutiae of raising children from knowing which cereal each child will tolerate to where the nearest emergency room is.
Ann Romney says she is praising women. But don’t be fooled. There’s an ancient history of misogyny hiding under praise of women—from Chaucer’s clerk to Popes slobbering over the Virgin Mary. Ann Romney has been accused of pandering to women in her speech, but she was really doing the old job of separating them from men. And while segregating women from men might seem like chivalry at times, common courtesy or even common sense at other times, it always works against women in the end.
She starts simply.
We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.
Yes, women are that. But as Emerson, not a great feminist but a great man, said: You are yourself, too. You are yourself first. It is the core feminist message. A woman does not define herself by her relationship to others, especially not to a man. Central to all, we are ourselves.
But that’s not Ann Romney’s main message. Her main message has to do with women and power, specifically power in the public arena.
It’s the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together.
A mom has this power, Ann Romney implies, inside the home. This is where her true woman holds power. Romney tries to be realistic. She knows that sometimes a woman has to leave the home: not everyone has millionaire husbands. But she insists that they always leave with regret: they are the working moms who love their jobs but would like to work just a little less to spend more time with the kids.
With all this power inside the home, why would a true woman leave it if she could possibly avoid doing so? The corporate power and the political arena’s rewards are nothing compared to the power of love.
A true woman understands this. She does not try to be a priest: 19 year old Mormon boys in good-standing are automatically priests—elders almost before their beards are fully in. But not women who’ve might have raised five of this future hierarchy. And of course, that’s not just a Mormon phenonemon. Nuns with doctorates and fifty years in the field are not suitable for the priesthood.
The true woman doesn’t question this. She knows her place. It’s a wonderful place really. It’s all about love.
And love makes the world go round. (Or is that Bain Capital?)
Hillary Clinton got such a bashing twenty years ago when she let out that she wasn’t one to stay home and bake cookies. Perhaps she should have worded that better. If the proof is in the pudding, she was a pretty good mom, cookies or not. But a large part of the nation felt scorned. Hillary had to backtrack.
But I doubt if Ann Romney will be compelled to backtrack though she scorns, in her sweet tomes, most American women. She reduces them to their roles to men and to family; she tells them their true vocation is not in the world but in the home. It’s an old message. It’s a damning, damaging message trotted out by every misogynistic politician and clergyman since time began.
I do not like joining another tradition—that of taking shots at the wives of political candidates, whether it be Kitty Dukakis, Hillary Clinton, or even Nancy Reagan. Most of the time, the shots are cheap and meant for their husbands. But it would also be insulting to Ann Romney not to answer her speech, as if as a nice woman she shouldn’t be taken that seriously. I take her very seriously.
Ann Romney’s hymn of praise of women, of mothers especially, is not what it seems. It seeks to limit women’s identity to their roles in family, it seeks to segregate them from the public world feminism has opened for them. Her speech was a shot in the cultural war: we need to shoot back.