You’d have to be a monster to deny that Ann Romney has had a rough time of it these last few years. Breast cancer and multiple sclerosis? We should obviously sympathize and send her well wishes. But nothing about that should prevent us from also looking honestly at her background and asking how representative a symbol of twenty-first century American womanhood she is. Liberals shouldn’t sneer at the fact that she never held a job outside the home (if only Hilary Rosen had phrased it in the clinical, social science-y way I just did, this “controversy” probably never would have erupted!). But conservatives have no business pretending that she represents anything beyond what she in fact is, which is a woman who was born to fantastic privilege and who married into even more fantastic privilege, and who simply hasn’t had to make the hard choices that many women have to make. She turns out not even to represent stay-at-home moms very well at all, and if Republicans think this little fracas is rallying stay-at-home moms to their reactionary cause, they’re deluding themselves.
First, a bit about Ann nee Davies. She grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, one of American’s wealthiest suburbs. She attended the posh private sister school of the posh private school her future husband attended. Her father was the president of a company that made maritime machinery. While still in college, she married the son of an ex-automobile company CEO. The couple would have to make its own way in the early years, as young couples do, but surely they knew that if a serious crisis hit them, they’d have someone to turn to. They’d never end up on the street or on a relative’s Castro convertible.
I’m plenty aware that I am going to be accused in the comment thread of class envy, but I’m just laying out facts. They shouldn’t be held against her: For all I know Ann Romney is the most generous, empathetic, and self-abnegating woman in the United States. But it’s simply a fact that she’s never had to worry about how she was going to feed her kids, or what she might do if tragedy befell. And lo and behold, tragedy, or something very close to it, did befall. She received two devastating diagnoses. She undoubtedly had excellent insurance coverage and undoubtedly received the best possible care. And since conservatives are so obsessed with pillorying the people they think of as the undeserving in society, I say it’s not unreasonable of me to point that out she “earned” her excellent insurance and care by marrying well.
But what of the millions of women who share her bad luck health-wise but don’t share her good luck wealth-wise? We don’t know what she thinks, and maybe since she’s not the candidate she is under no obligation to tell us, interesting as it might be to find out. But we do know what her husband, her own presumed insurance provider, thinks. He thinks the hell with them. He used to care about them, when he passed a law giving them a fair shot at buying affordable coverage, but now he wants to repeal the law that does the same thing nationally, and the only reason is political calculation and cowardice. That’s his, not hers. But I do wonder whether she agrees with him that these women should be left on their own because to help them would be to hand a political victory to the enemy.
The interesting thing about all this is that your “typical,” if there is such a thing, stay-at-home mom bears not the remotest resemblance to Ann Romney. The Census Bureau studied this question for the first time (?!) in 2007, and the results were, to me, totally surprising and fascinating. Stay-at-home mothers, you probably think, are more likely to be white, well-off, proper, all-around June Cleaver-ish. Uh, June Cleaver was around 50 years ago and lived on TV. In today’s actual America, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be: younger; Hispanic (Latina, if you prefer); foreign-born; less well educated. About one-quarter of married mothers of children under 15 didn’t work outside the home, the bureau found; and fully 19 percent of that one-quarter had less than a high-school degree, while that was true of just 8 percent of working mothers. This suggests pretty clearly that a significant number of women who stay at home don’t do so by choice, but because they don’t have marketable skills—or because they can’t get jobs that pay enough to cover the cost of childcare.
What about the millions of American women who share Ann Romney’s bad luck health-wise but don’t share her good luck wealth-wise?
The study found 5.6 million stay-at-home moms in all. The above numbers suggest that maybe half of them or thereabouts are there by total choice—have decided to stay home and raise multiple children. The rest are probably there because of crappy educations—their fault in some cases, no doubt, the system’s in others. Whichever the case, these women are not staying home by “choice,” and they tend to be the women society really forgets about and pays no attention to. I doubt pretty strongly that they identify much with Ann Romney or are rallying to her husband’s cause.
This whole fracas happened simply because conservatives saw an opportunity to accuse liberals of being elitist. There was a whiff of that in Rosen’s wording, but at least Rosen is affiliated with the side in American politics that wants women who didn’t grow up in Bloomfield Hills and marry well to have a chance to receive excellent health care if they ever find themselves in Ann Romney’s position.