By Susan Milligan
It appears that the manufactured fight between Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen is just about over. And, as unfortunately happens in such cases, all women ended up being the losers.
There was a chance that the overwhelmingly-male candidates for state and federal office would have had to take a look at some tough issues affecting women. Why hasn't the Violence Against Women Act been extended? Why did mostly men lose their jobs during the recession (the "mancession," it was called), but men overwhelmingly were given the jobs that came back in the recovery? Why do women still only earn less than 80 percent of what men do? And why isn't contraception understood to be basic healthcare for women, who cannot plan their lives and certainly not their career, without the choice of using it?
Those are good questions, but they've been pushed aside by a more media-titillating conflict between Ann Romney and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. Rosen foolishly and inartfully claimed that Romney "never worked a day in her life," a comment clearly meant to underscore the fact that Romney did not need to do paying work as the wife of multimillionaire Mitt Romney. It was taken, quite understandably, to be an insult to women who stay home and take care of their children all day-a lot of work, no question about it. The Romney campaign, hurting from a wide gender gap in the polls, thought it had hit the jackpot, and the Republican National Committee flooded reporters' inboxes with evidence of how much worse the Obama White House has been for women than the GOP.
Good strategy, for both parties. Pit women against each other, and they may not insist on answers to all those pesky questions.
Motherhood is tough, and it would be unrealistic to suggest that it is only as tough as fatherhood. It is mothers who are chided to "put their children first." Father's Day celebrates a man who provides for his family, notably managing to have both a family and another job for which he is paid. Mother's Day celebrates female self-sacrifice: put aside your own needs and ambitions for your husband and children, and once a year, you get taken out to brunch.
It is mothers who end up feeling guilty-seemingly no matter what career-family balance they take on. Go to work outside the home and feel guilty about being away from your children. Stay home and feel guilty for not contributing to the family income. And sadly, it's often other women who judge each other. Women struggling against sexism and unequal pay at work resent women who seem to have it "easy" by staying home. Stay-at-home mothers might judge the woman who puts the kids in daycare so she can pursue her own job. Rarely is the father expected to stay home with his children, or to feel guilty about making the choice to work. And of course, for many couples, having one parent stay at home with the children is not economically feasible.
But turning the matter into some sort of silly girl-fight between two women-each impressive in her own way-spares politicians from answering the real issues affecting women. It's like what happened when Brad Pitt, a very public person married to another very public person, allegedly had an affair with a third very public person (which happens), but didn't have the common decency to be discreet about it. Did the tabloids and newspaper style sections wonder why either woman would want to be with someone who seemed to have no problem publicly humiliating his wife? No-it came down to "Team Angelina" versus "Team Jennifer"-as if a person's bad behavior was secondary to a competition between two women.
Ann Romney stayed home with her five boys, all of whom appeared to have turned out quite well. Good for her. And Hilary Rosen is a successful political figure. Good for her, too. Neither has to defend her decisions about her work and family life. However, it does raise a question for the male candidates in both parties who piously defend the tradition of stay-at-home motherhood: How many of them offered, or even seriously considered, staying home with their children so their wives could pursue careers?