Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

It was striking how many of the key speakers at the Republican National Convention reached for the theme of the importance of women.  In speech after speech, we heard about the dominant role that mothers have played in shaping the lives of these political figures: Chris Christie’s Sicilian mom, “the enforcer,” who taught him to speak “the truth, bluntly, directly and without much varnish”; Paul Ryan’s mom, who demonstrated true grit by earning a degree and starting a business after the death of his father; Mitt Romney’s mom, who ran for the Senate, telling her son, “Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?”  And we watched motherhood personified by Ann Romney, mother of five sons, who raised them during a time when Mitt traveled extensively for work. “”I’d call and try to offer support,” Mitt Romney explained. “But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school.”

It was clear in each of these speeches that these men love their mothers and wives, and that these women have played foundational roles in making them who they are today.  Why, then, did this tribute to motherhood and the significance of women ring false?

It could be because anyone listening to the speeches, and the speakers themselves, are keenly aware of the trouble Republicans have had capturing the female vote.  Poll after poll shows Obama outperforming Romney in capturing women’s support.  The party has appeared out of step with its hard-line stance against abortion under any circumstances, including in the case of rape, and in the week before the convention, Republicans had to deal with the bizarre and insensitive claim by U.S. Rep. Todd Aiken “that the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” (that is, conception) in the case of “legitimate rape.”  As a result, anything the convention speakers tried to say about women was likely to be met with some skepticism, and some sense that they were pandering to try to get women’s votes.

It could be that the pro-female message seemed forced because many of the speakers reached for clichéd images to describe women.  For example, we heard the familiar description of the hardworking mother riding the bus (Paul Ryan’s mom “got on a bus every day for years, and rode 40 miles each morning” and Chris Christie’s grandma, who “took three buses to get to work every day”).  We heard about the heroic mother raising children solo (Christie’s grandmother and Ryan’s mother, plus Ann Romney).  We heard about the mother who was the true power player in the family (Chris Christie: “She made sure we all knew who set the rules.  In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver.”)

That theme of the woman holding the “real power” in society because of her behind-the-scenes role as the authority figure at home — with the lack of earning power that results — is a bit of rhetorical slight of hand.  It is unquestionably a legitimate and personal choice to stay home to care for a family.  But there are real consequences that result from these decisions, and you can see them across society.  Women hold fewer leadership positions than men — for example, only 17 percent of those serving in Congress are female.  Women earn less money than men, for a variety of reasons — sometimes because they have left the workforce to raise children and reenter later, never quite catching up in terms of salary, and sometimes because they opt for lower-paying jobs to have more flexibility in order to care for family.  Twice as many elderly women than men live in poverty.  The “power” that comes from playing a behind-the-scenes role has not, thus far, translated into actual institutional or economic power for many women in America.  Saying that the domestic (and female-dominated) world is the real seat of power does not make it true.

Why else might the message have rung false?  Ann Romney described the unequal playing field that many women face because of the double workload of office and home with a tone of inevitability (“It’s how it is, isn’t it?”):

And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It’s how it is, isn’t it?  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?  I love you, women!  You’re the ones who always have to do a little more. . . .

Assuming a chummy sisterhood with the women in her audience, Ann Romney confides, “I am not sure if men really understand this, but I don’t think there is a woman in America who really expects her life to be easy. In our own ways, we all know better. You know what, and that’s fine. We don’t want easy.” For any woman who object to the idea that gender inequities are “fine,” questioning whether the government couldn’t do more — to provide affordable childcare, to assist women looking to re-enter the workplace, to help the single mother wanting to stay at home — to level the playing field, the assumption that an unequal playing field is inevitable will strike an unwelcome note.

In Ann Romney’s speech, the unequal state of play is not just inevitable,  it is also a positive.  It permits the women of America to be the “best of America” because of their willingness to soldier on:

You know what it’s like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report which just has to be done…. You are the best of America.  You are the hope of America.  There would not be an America without you.  Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises.

Mitt Romney struck a similar “singing your praises” theme in his speech, saying of Ann, “I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine.”  In his effort to show how much he loves women, Mitt may have overstated his claim.  Mitt Romney has some extremely challenging jobs—running a $65 billion company, serving as the governor of Massachusetts.  Yes, being a mother is tough, but being a business leader and a governor is also nothing to sneeze at.  The claim that Mitt thinks that Ann’s job was harder rings false, and it wasn’t a claim he needed to make.  He could have said, “I knew that her job as a mom was extremely difficult, and exceptionally important.”  If you overstate a claim, it makes it less credible, and it starts to sound like pandering.

Finally, if supporting women is truly a priority for the Romney camp, then his plan of action should reflect this.  It may be that Mitt Romney does care about the issues that affect women, but he makes that claim against the backdrop of a Republican Party platform advocating a variety of reforms that are likely to disproportionately affect women.  In addition to a ban on abortion, the platform proposes cuts to Medicaid (70 percent of beneficiaries are female), Social Security (provides the only source of income for about a third of women over the age of 65), and welfare (approximately 90 percent of adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are female). Certainly something should be done to address the fact that these programs are expensive and underfunded, but it is equally true that fixing them by cutting funding to them will hit women harder than it will men; believing that the Republican platform is designed to help women requires ignoring those potential real-world results. The platform states, “We recognize and honor the courageous efforts of those who bear the many burdens of parenting alone,” but offers nothing to help these parents.  If Republicans want to persuade voters that they believe women are significant, Romney needs to put forth a plan that clearly benefits them.

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