The Mommy Wars usually slip into a de facto truce during economic downturns, just because choices are so difficult to come by. Last week, any truce that might have existed was broken, not only with tone-deaf statements by two women on opposite sides of the presidential race but by thousands, if not millions, of American women pretending not to understand the issues on the other side of the employment divide.
The kerfuffle began with a legitimate issue. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he relies on his wife, Ann Romney, to help him understand women’s concerns, and that the economy tops the list.
Then Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, dismissively opined that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life.
Ann Romney, wide eyed, responded that she chose to stay home and raise five boys, noting that is not an easy task.
All those things are true. No one can honestly believe that Rosen, a parent herself, was suggesting Ann Romney had never lifted a finger or that raising children is not work. No one can have misunderstood the reference to paid employment. The economic issue is jobs, and the political issue is that candidates need to understand the economic forces that affect rank-and-file Americans.
No one can honestly believe that Ann Romney does not realize that her life has, in many significant ways, been made much easier by her husband’s wealth. She is privileged, not ignorant. She knows the need to earn a living adds a layer of complexity to parenting, and that most women have far less financial security than she always has had.
After the initial shrill cries of disbelief that women could be so horribly disrespected by one side or the other – sob! – came a wave of condescension cloaked in saccharine: “Of course, raising children is hard work, dearie!” “Yes, it is, and it’s too bad you need a paycheck and can’t stay home to raise your children.”
Let’s get over the partisan weeping and wailing and get to the point. The Romneys are right in one regard. Women care about a lot of issues, but when the economy is poor, it looms large in everyone’s mind.
If Mitt Romney wants women to vote for him, he has to convince them that he understands the realities of life for American families. He needs to listen directly to women who have to work to feed their families, and not filter their concerns through his wife. He needs to promote policies that benefit women and families.
Those proposed policies, and Barack Obama’s, are what women should be talking about, not whose life is harder. Women should be debating the opposing views of the Republican and Democratic establishments. They should be talking about income equality and job security, health care, reproductive choice, education and opportunity for their daughters and sons alike.
They should not be pretending that one dismissive statement represents an entire party or platform, and they especially should not be pretending that their feelings are hurt by those statements. That behavior is demeaning to women everywhere.
The issues are real, universal and intractable – especially if Americans waste energy bickering about intentional misunderstandings.