If there’s a benefit to the never-ending attacks on women’s rights happening during a presidential election year it’s that we get a very clear picture of how the right views women. And in the case of Ann Romney there’s a lot to talk about.
Ann’s been sent out on the campaign trail to “humanize” her husband. Her job is to help him connect with voters, especially women voters, and to soften the picture of Mitt as a manipulating corporate pawn. To be fair, that’s not an easy task. But, is it really one Republicans and the Romney campaign are truly interested in?
Consider this quip from the campaign trail. “We use Ann sparingly now, so that people don’t get tired of her–or start attacking,” The Romney quote came from the now-infamous video tape where Romney told his big-money backers that he’s not really interested in the 47% of Americans who rely on some form of government assistance since they haven’t taken “personal responsibility” for their lives. But the quote- and the phrasing– of “using” his wife on the campaign trail is worth some unpacking.
For starters, the idea that Ann is a woman to be kept and brought out at just the right moments is the worst kind of paternalism. Ann, it would appear, is a mere prop in her husband’s ambitions, a bit actor in the narrative he’s peddling to voters. But context is important–Mitt didn’t make this comment to voters. Of course not. That kind of gaffe would only make his image worse with women voters, if that is even possible. Instead he confessed this campaign truth to his donors, the wealthy men (mostly) financing his farce. This was a friendly audience, a group of peers where presumably such a statement would not only pass without so much as a raised eyebrow but where such a statement would be understood as normal.
In fact, it is so much the norm in conservative circles that at an event for Romney in Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke adoringly of this this. “It’s not easy to be a spouse of an elected official,” he said. “You know, they’re at home, doing the laundry and doing so many things while we’re up here on the stage getting a little bit of applause, right? They don’t often share in it. And it is hard for the spouse to hear the criticism and to put up with the travel schedule and to have to be at home taking care of the kids. And where is the politician? Out on the road.”
The doting, suffering but loyal wife is nothing new in political circles, and conservatives have hardly cornered the market on it, but in the context of a year and a half where the only legislating going on at the state and federal level was designed to strip women of their abilities to control their bodies and provide for their families and well, those images and statements start to take on a different meaning.
Consider, for example, the battle over contraception coverage. Conservatives couch this battle as one of “religious liberty” when what they really mean is that it is one of gendered economic dependence. Wives (always wives) you see, should be at home folding the laundry. And those single women who may need contraception? Well, they’re just failing to take “personal responsibility” for their lives.
Or consider the battle over equal pay. Again, conservatives couch their opposition to paying equal wages regardless of gender as a matter of capitalistic principle. By mandating pay standards, they argue, the government is stifling innovation. But really, enforcing structural discrimination in pay is simply one more way they can punish women for their “choice” to work outside the home.
Mitt’s comments about how and when his campaign “uses” Ann, when put in this context, suddenly seem less shocking and more pedestrian but no less offensive. In 2012 the conservative movement in America has embraced a domesticity that is not only bizarrely idealized but increasingly devoid of even a tangential tie to reality, and there’s no greater proof of it then poor, suffering Ann Romney.
Photo from gage skidmore via flickr.