A Woman’s Work Never Done

One way to bore a vital and enthusiastic young person to tears is to talk about the Good Old Days – or if they weren’t so good, the Old Days. No, no stories about how you had to walk five miles to and from school each day, in the snow, uphill, both ways. Yes, some of us, in grade school in the fifties, walked to school – all on our own. But it was rather pleasant, and back then no one gave much thought to child molesters or gang-bangers with semiautomatics driving around mowing down kids for the fun of it. Suburban Pittsburgh was kind of Ozzie and Harriet Land at the time. There are no stories. It really was boring.

But the sixties were something else entirely. And many of us who came of age then feel a need to explain what those years were like, with one America seeming to disintegrate and another forming. What started with Bill Haley and Elvis, and then the Beach Boys, and then the Beatles and the Stones – changed the sound of the country. Patty Page and Perry Como became prehistoric. And the civil rights movement changed the face of the country. John Coltrane was ripping into My Favorite Things on stage at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena when the news-kids started running down the aisles with a special edition of the Post-Gazette – the 1964 Civil Rights Act had finally passed. The air was electric. Even a white high school kid with his white-bread date sensed the big change – but maybe you had to be there. And of course there was the Vietnam War just starting then, and blowing up into a massive slow-rolling catastrophe over the next several years. That changed how everyone thought about patriotism. The Greatest Generation had done the right thing and saved the world. But it was a new world now. The right thing was no longer all that clear. And of course feminism was just stirring, as somehow, before the sixties, career women were an oddity – often admirable, but an oddity. Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver stayed at home – they were moms. That was the norm. Mary Richards was a long way off. And the thought that one day the First Lady would be a whip-smart and forceful black woman, with a law degree from Harvard, who had actually practiced law, would have been unimaginable. Now it’s unremarkable. Meg Whitman ran eBay and now runs HP, and the CEO of IBM is a woman. So what? That’s not remarkable now. If you’re good at your job you’re good at your job.

But back in 1965 it was different, as that September it was off to college – a small liberal arts university in central Ohio, Denison. And that was a place, and a year, teetering between the old America and the new. There were the frat boys in their khakis and madras shirts, and the sorority girls in their shirtwaists, with their circle pins – and a small counterculture starting to bubble up. But that was nascent. Most of the cool girls kidded that their major was really finding a husband. College was where guys built the foundation of a successful career, and where smart women decided which of them was suitable. And yes, any guy in Pre-Med was a catch. It was kind of a running joke, but any woman there to build the foundation of a successful career didn’t get into the right sorority, or get into any sorority at all. It was a different world, or maybe the last year of a dying world. By the end of the decade, after bras were burned on the Atlantic City boardwalk outside the Miss America Pageant and Gloria Steinem and all the rest had their say, it had become okay for women to be anything they wanted to be, all on their own if they chose. Heck, women could actually have a real college major.

But everyone has slightly different memories of that time, and here’s how Ann Romney remembers those years:

They were not easy years. You have to understand, I was raised in a lovely neighborhood, as was Mitt. And at BYU, we moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income.

It was tiny. And I didn’t have money to carpet the floor. But you can get remnants, samples, so I glued them together, all different colors. It looked awful, but it was carpeting.

We were happy, studying hard. Neither one of us had a job – because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time.

The stock came from Mitt’s father. When he took over American Motors, the stock was worth nothing. But he invested Mitt’s birthday money year to year – it wasn’t much, a few thousand, but he put it into American Motors because he believed in himself. Five years later, stock that had been $6 a share was $96 and Mitt cashed it so we could live and pay for education.

Mitt and I walked to class together, shared housekeeping, had a lot of pasta and tuna fish and learned hard lessons.

Ah, just two young people in love, struggling to get along – a typical La Boehme story of poverty and sacrifice – but Digby isn’t buying what she’s selling:

I’m fairly sure that selling that stock was just as hard for them as it was for me to work at a full time job when I went to school. I can’t even imagine the pain I would have felt if I’d had to pick up the phone and take some profits instead of working nights and going to classes in the daytime.

But she will cut Ann Romney some slack here, maybe:

Now, the truth is that Ann and Mitt had their first children during this time, so they were up all night as well. I suppose I might have done that too, but it would have been unaffordable for me to go to school and work full time and raise a child so I was very glad to have birth control easily available through Planned Parenthood. But then I’m fairly sure that Ann and Mitt wouldn’t have approved of my sluttish co-ed lifestyle. I was unmarried, after all – and with no stock to call my own. At the very least, I should have first been married at the age of 19 to a man with a famous political name who was groomed to be president of the United States. That’s how nice young ladies “struggle.”

And here’s another way to look at it:

Ann Romney raised five kids and worked as a partner in a political career, which is no picnic. I’m sure she is an energetic, hard worker who’s known her share of heartache and worry. The woman is over 60 – life happens even to the very wealthy. But she simply has not led the same kind of life that most Americans have led and for her and Mitt to pretend they personally know what it is to “struggle” like the average American is absurd.

Yes, these two say there is no Republican War on Women, and of course they understand real struggle, but Digby thinks that stance is unsustainable:

This would not be a huge issue if she and her husband weren’t proposing policies designed to ensure that fewer and fewer Americans will be able to go to school or choose when to have their kids or keep from going bankrupt when they get a bad diagnosis. This is the problem. Nobody cares if Ann and Mitt were born into privilege and became extremely wealthy, for its own sake. What’s so galling is the fact that they are out there selling the notion that average Americans have been coddled by Big Government and won’t “take responsibility” for ourselves and need to “make sacrifices” – that what we must do is make life even easier for “job creators” like Ann and Mitt so that they might trickle down a little of their wealth to the rest of us.

And that loops back to Hilary Rosen being denounced for saying Ann Romney never worked a day in her life:

This is why it’s a shame that Hilary Rosen didn’t choose her words more carefully. The intention, I’m sure, wasn’t to say that being “a mom” isn’t work. It was that Mitt Romney, saying he depends on his wife to come off the campaign trail and fill him in on the concerns of average women, says he has no personal empathy for half the population. (He also meets average women every day on the campaign trail every day, after all.) And since his wife is a highly privileged person who has little experience with the real struggles of American woman, she might not be the best person to be his Ambassador to the female half of the population. It certainly doesn’t seem to have changed their policies that reward wealthy women just like Ann Romney at the expense of poor and middle class women.

Well, much has been said about this – and is still being said. But the crew at MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes found an interesting clip of Mitt Romney from January saying this:

While I was governor 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, “Well that’s heartless,” and I said “No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.”

And Salon’s Joan Walsh sees a problem here:

But wait: Ann Romney said her husband told her “more times than I can imagine, ‘Ann, your job is more important than mine.'” Yet poor mothers need “the dignity of work?”

Walsh asks you to think about it:

There are plenty of good reasons to help poor mothers into the workforce. For many women, welfare was an invaluable safety net they used to get back on their feet while raising children alone. For others, particularly in cut off low-income communities with few opportunities, it maintained women and their children in a grinding poverty and isolation that could become inter-generational.

But this is what you’re supposed to say:

Concern about a so-called “culture of dependency” led first Republicans and then Democrats to back work requirements for welfare recipients, initially for mothers without young children. But Republicans crusaded to make the rules came to apply to women with infants. As Romney said in 1994, “we will do everything in our power to make sure that people who are on welfare have an opportunity and an obligation to go to work, not after two years but from day one if we could.”

From Day One. Maybe a brief stop at a hospital to deliver the baby, and then back to work? The conservative Concerned Women for America said this week that motherhood is “the most important job there is.” I wonder if they’ll be chastising Romney for his anti-motherhood approach to poverty. Of course not.

And the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has more:

Read that again: “I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.” And by “individuals,” Romney means “mothers.”

To understand this comment, you need to understand that there’s no such program as “welfare.” There’s only TANF: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. And the key word there is “families.” Welfare is not now, and never was, a program for poor people. It’s a program for poor mothers.

So what Mitt Romney was saying, in other words, was that he believes poor mothers should go out and get jobs rather than to stay home with their children. He believes that going out and getting a job gives mothers – and everyone else – “the dignity of work.” And so, finally, he believes that staying home and taking care of children is not “work,” and does not fulfill a “work requirement,” and does not give poor mothers “the dignity of work.” And he believes all of this strongly enough that, as governor of Massachusetts, he signed those beliefs into law.

But Klein is not surprised by any of this:

It’s more or less a position that both parties have shared since the 1996 welfare reform bill. But this week, Washington was gripped by an inane micro-scandal over a tweet by CNN contributor and Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen, who said Ann Romney had never worked “a day in her life.” The Romney campaign, hoping to make up its deficit among women voters, jumped on the comment. “I happen to believe that all moms are working moms,” said Romney.

It turns out he doesn’t. If you’re a poor mother in Massachusetts and you go to sign up for TANF, you’ll see you need to fulfill a “work requirement.” And you cannot fulfill it by being “a mom.” And that’s because of policy that Romney signed into law in Massachusetts, and Bill Clinton signed into law nationally.

That law did work wonders, but there are ambiguities here:

The poverty rate for single mothers is lower now than before the legislation passed in 1996, and the labor-force participation rate is higher. Both parties brag about it routinely. But those numbers are only successes if you believe, as both parties do, that being a stay-at-home mother is not the same as working.

Over the past week, both parties decided to pander to stay-at-home mothers by forgetting this policy consensus and claiming they have always believed being a stay-at-home mother is “work.” But while they certainly believe parenting is toil, they don’t believe it is, in any real sense, work. And you can see that in the laws they’ve made.

After all, it’s not just TANF that doesn’t recognize parenting as “work.” Social Security doesn’t count parenting as “work.” The tax code doesn’t count parenting as “work.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t count parenting as “work.”

So think about Ann and Mitt:

Those statutory distinctions don’t matter to wealthier parents like Ann Romney. She’s not looking for government benefits. Politicians can pander to her by merely recognizing the labor she puts in. But to poorer mothers, those benefits mean quite a lot. Politicians, however, don’t pander to poorer mothers. They put them to work.

And Mathew Yglesias adds this:

The phrase “the dignity of work” is extremely condescending and ignores precisely the point the Romney camp was trying to make about Ann Romney – unpaid household work is still work and it’s still hard. At the same time, there is a sound policy point behind Romney’s argument about the desirability of pushing welfare recipients into the labor market. The issue is that when you work in the paid labor market you not only obtain income, you obtain job skills and connections that help you obtain further income in the future. This skill-building is both personally and socially valuable, and it explains why it can make sense for the public sector to expend funds on helping connect people with paid employment even when simply cutting them a check would be cheaper.

But the funny thing is that you can apply the same logic to married women:

Today’s married mother, after all, may be tomorrow’s divorced mom. If you stay out of the labor force while married, this will severely hurt your earnings prospects if you become single. And the fact that you’ll be hard-pressed to cope with the economic consequences of divorce weakens your bargaining position within the marriage.

So obviously the government should find a way to force all married women to work outside the home. It would give them dignity and a marketable skill-set. If that’s your aim you really ought to be consistent.

But Sara Mead takes us back to the real issue here, which is getting stuck in 1965, or really, earlier, in Ozzie and Harriet Land with June Cleaver:

So, apparently, raising children is only work if you look like Ann Romney.

But this type of double standard is nothing new. Our political and public discourse around the family – to our great detriment – often behaves as though history began in the 1950s. But the idea that there are two types of women – White, married, virtuous, affluent “true women” and then pretty much everyone else – is an old one, dating back at least to the Victorian Era Cult of Domesticity. While “true women,” by confining themselves to the domestic sphere and womanly arts of childbearing, rearing, and making a harmonious family home, both required and deserved men’s protection from the slights of the harsh world, it was tough cookies for the majority of women who didn’t fit that model (from white working class women, to widows and single mothers, to women of color, like Sojourner Truth in her famous speech) – not to mention their kids.

And Mead says that’s what’s going on here:

Interestingly, the Cult of Domesticity, by placing the creation of a harmonious and virtuous home environment as a true woman’s primary objective in life, and the protection of that environment as her husband’s, actually provided a justification for huge inequalities of wealth and income and abuses of workers by these same virtuous husbands during the Victorian and Gilded Eras – and we may be seeing something of a similar dynamic today in conservative positions on economic inequality and the labor market.

And somehow that’s like being a college freshman back in that September of 1965, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what and why everyone is there with you. You could sense that Cult of Domesticity in the air. But you also knew things were soon to change. It feels just the same. Mitt’s the pleasant frat boy in khakis and a madras shirt, and Ann’s the pretty sorority girl in the shirtwaist, with the circle pin. And the poor are elsewhere. Some things never change.

But now there’s a second video, from Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed, from 1994, when Romney was running for the Senate in Massachusetts:

This is a different world than it was in the 1960s when I was growing up, when you used to have Mom at home and Dad at work. Now Mom and Dad both have to work whether they want to or not, and usually one of them has two jobs.

Yes, he misses the sixties. Domesticity isn’t what it used to be.

And there’s Jill at Feministe:

What Hilary Rosen said was sloppy, but let’s focus on the people with the real power here: Folks like Mitt Romney, who talk a big game about motherhood being THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD and how his wife’s job was so much more important than his, but don’t consider raising children to be real work, and who certainly don’t want to make full-time child-rearing a realistic option for people who are not very wealthy (and, notably, don’t want to make it a true choice for people who are not wealthy and who make the rational financial decision to stay home, given the cost of childcare vs. their own wages).

The crux of the issue is that Mitt Romney’s definition of “stay-at-home mom,” like his definition of “good mom,” is limited to women in his racial group and economic class. I would wager a lot of money that when Romney made those comments in January, he wasn’t even thinking of the term “stay-at-home mom” – because a low-income mother who relies on state aid is not a stay-at-home mom. She’s a welfare cheat, or lazy, or a drain on society. She’s undignified.

But sure, let’s keep talking about two stupid sentences uttered by Hilary Rosen were offensive. Nothing else to see here!

And Maha says Mittens Is Going to Be Very Sorry:

Most of us who had to work to support ourselves and our children had it up to here with the “mommy wars” years ago. Yes, raising kids is work, but raising kids while working full time is more work. A lot more work. Especially when you can’t afford housekeepers and cooks and nannies.

I think Mittens may be about to find out that the “mommy wars” aren’t the opportunity he thought they were.

That’s because the Good Old Days aren’t what they used to be. You see, things changed in the sixties. But maybe you had to be there, and since moved on.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Ann Romney, Feminism, Mitt Romney, Republican War on Women, The Sixties and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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