Pundit Hilary Rosen committed a mortal sin of American politics: She spoke the truth with a microphone on.
“What you have,” she told Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night, “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?” Rosen observed. “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.”
With that, the storm erupted.
Of course stay-at-home moms “work,” women from Barbara Bush to Michelle Obama quickly asserted. All that housekeeping and child care is a lot of work. President Obama, apparently needing more distance from Rosen’s comments, suggested Thursday that candidates’ spouses should be “off limits” altogether.
And surely, taking care of a family is hard work. In Ann Romney’s case, managing the very elaborate Romney establishment — five children, three or four houses and two Cadillacs — probably takes as much labor as most jobs in the market economy. Within 24 hours, Rosen was apologizing to all those women laboring in their homes for implying that they don’t work.
In the furor, everyone seemed to forget that unpaid mothers and household work are not what the discussion is about. Republicans are not talking about how jobs for stay-at-home moms have decreased under Obama.
They are talking about how paid work for women has suffered. Mitt Romney said this past week that 92 percent of the jobs lost under Obama were lost by women. Erick Erickson, a Republican commentator who joined Rosen on Cooper’s CNN show, argued that the president is responsible for the decline of women’s jobs in the paid workplace.
And work as she may, that’s one place Ann Romney has never been. She has spent her life in the private precincts of the marital workplace, where emotional ties replace the financial norms of the factory or office.
Now, she has emerged to campaign for her husband and to explain to him what women want. “I’ve had the fun of being out with my wife the last several days on the campaign trail,” Mitt Romney told Fox Newsthis month. “And she points out that as she talks to women, they tell her that their number one concern is the economy.”
At a recent campaign event, Romney said he wished his wife were there to help answer a question about female voters. “She says that she’s going across the country and talking with women, and what they’re talking about is the debt that we’re leaving the next generation and the failure of this economy to put people back to work.”
When Ann Romney’s husband, who faces a gender gap in some polls, uses her experience and insight as a megaphone for women’s concern over fewer paid jobs, he mistakenly assumes that all women are fungible. Which was, I take it, Rosen’s original point.
Although Ann Romney may be a fine spokesperson on some issues, the dirty little secret of angling for female votes is that while all women’s work, inside or outside the home, has the same worth, as Michelle Obama and Barbara Bush sweetly expressed, all women do not have the same interests. Women who work in the home do not have the same interest in the recovery of the formal job market as women who have to work for pay. Indeed, wage-earning women probably have more in common with their paycheck-dependent male co-workers on the subject of economic recovery than with household laborers such as Ann Romney.
Unemployment is not the only issue on which women in the formal workplace split from their informally occupied sisters. Equal pay is another. And that is more complicated for Mitt Romney, given his support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who led the charge to repeal his state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which protected women against pay discrimination. Recently, a Romney aide was unable to say whether the candidate supported the latest addition to federal equal-pay law, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which guarantees equal pay for equal work.
Women whose work consists of caring for their households and children don’t need to worry about being paid less than their male counterparts. First, they aren’t paid at all, in any formal sense, and second, unless their husbands take a male spouse alongside them — an unlikely social development — they won’t confront sex discrimination at their workplace. Actually, Romney himself, a proud member of the capitalist economy and of a religious minority with a history of discrimination, has more in common with female workers than his wife does in discouraging arbitrary workplace discrimination. Ann Romney huffily reminded her husband’s detractors that some of his best employees have been women. But they were his employees; why is he using his wife to get that message out?
Ann Romney could of course speak for some interests common to all women (and not common to men). All women, for example, have an interest in controlling their reproduction. They may choose to put the issue in the hands of some god, or they may choose to control it themselves, but it is an issue on which women as a group differ from men as a group. What might Ann Romney say about the interest of women in birth control?
Or in breast cancer detection and research, an area where women have an interest different from all but a tiny handful of men? When the Susan G. Komen foundation announced cuts to breast-cancer-related funding for Planned Parenthood, Mitt Romney might have had his wife address that issue, in which, as a breast cancer survivor, she happens to have a real personal stake.
Many women in the market economy share with women at home a desire for a more forgiving workplace, one where they could both work for pay and have better family lives. Maybe Ann Romney would like to address the relentless Republican opposition to the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Although Democrats, who are especially dependent on female voters in swing states, probably don’t think so, Rosen’s gaffe may be a blessing. It’s time to stop treating women as if we were one monolithic interest group. In the highly contested demographic of white female voters, married women such as Ann Romney who derive their livelihoods from the success of their husbands vote overwhelmingly for the GOP. And Republicans such as Wisconsin’s Walker tend to look after the interests of men, in, say, being paid more than women with the same job. Maybe Democrats ought to concentrate on those voters — single women, wage-earning women — who do have an interest in equal pay.
After a whirlwind few days, Rosen on Friday canceled a scheduled appearance on “Meet the Press.” In a statement, she explained that she had said everything she wanted to on the matter. “I apologized to Mrs. Romney and work-in-home moms for mistakenly giving the impression that I do not think their work is valuable. Of course it is. I will instead spend the weekend trying to explain to my kids the value of admitting a mistake and moving on.”
But what if Rosen could teach her kids something more valuable: what it means to say something true and difficult, and stand by it. Her comments were uncharacteristically tone-deaf. But her call to focus on those women who are really hurt by job losses was pitch-perfect.
Linda Hirshman is the author of “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World” and the forthcoming “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.”