I just finished reading an article about Mitt Romney’s Woman Problem, and it got me to thinking about my instinctive “ish” reaction to the man. Logically there’s no reason for it. He’s handsome. He’s well-groomed. He’s wealthy. In short, he should have those of us who like such men drooling into our salads, right? So why is it that my first instinct upon seeing his image is “ish,” and the second is a cutting remark? Mother Corn had her own opinions about this (and I’d suggest you go read her article), but speaking for myself, I think it’s a combination of factors.
Before I start I should say that, though I lean Librul these days, I am somewhat troubled by my instinctive responses to Mr. Romney. I don’t believe our guts should be electing our presidents. I think it’s important to sort this out–to understand where the response is coming from, so I can better judge its validity. So–bear with me–this is probably going to say more about me than it does about Mr. Romney–but then again, it could be that I’m not alone in needing to understand this a bit better.
So, why does Mitt Romney have a woman problem at my house?
1. He reminds me of the men in the fundamentalist religion in which I grew up. In those years, our church shared a good many of the cultural values of the Mormons–women were seen as distinctly inferior, and their roles were in many ways very limited. Men were our spiritual, social, cultural, and professional superiors. As late as the late 1980’s my mother advised me against pursuing my Ph.D. because “men don’t like women who are smarter than they are.” It would be easy to dismiss this as the opinion of one woman, had it not been for all of the church-produced books girls were given explaining their “place,” and how to attract and keep a man. Those books absolutely agreed with my mother–men didn’t like women who challenged them socially, intellectually, culturally, or spiritually.
The men–and boys–I knew growing up were shaped by that in profound ways. Many were good, kind, men–who simply assumed that women were support staff, so to speak. We were to defer to them, to accept subordinate positions and lower salaries–even if our real responsibilities qualified us for much more–and be “protected” from the more challenging–and more rewarding–roles in life. We were to be kept safe at home, tucked up in cotton wool, and referred to as “the girls,” or “the ladies.” We might be cute, in the way that a poodle is cute–but we were never, ever equal, and while the good, kind men might listen to us and take our wishes into account, that was because they were good, kind men, not because our opinions and intelligence deserved equal weight.
There were the good, kind men. And then there were the others, the men for whom keeping women “in their place” wasn’t just a cultural issue, but a deep, driving need. They were the men who used women–to keep their houses clean, their children safe and occupied, their laundry done, and their sexual needs met. They were the men who believed that women as a gender were to blame for all the evils of the world, and that if a woman was unhappy, well, hadn’t God said that they would bear their children in sorrow? For them, a man stood in the place of God, and one of his rights was not protecting women, but seeing to it that they paid, and paid, and paid.
These were the men who raped women and then belittled and shamed them, who laughed and bragged about their sexual conquests even while they insisted on virginity from their brides, who spoke often about how women should “keep silent in church,” about how a man might listen to the arguments put forth by his spouse and girl children, but in the end, all power, and all decisions, rested with him.
When I look at Mitt Romney, I see a man who grew up in a church that fosters a culture very much like that, and I wonder how deep those values go with him. What makes all this harder is that the examples he puts forward to demonstrate how very much he can understand and relate to people like me only serve to drive the wedge deeper.
Take, for example, the umbrage he took at the suggestion that his wife, Ann, “hadn’t worked a day in her life.” This was spun as a slur against stay-at-home moms everywhere. The reality is that while Ann Romney may well have responsibilities, they are very different from the responsibilities of stay-at-home moms–or even go-to-work moms–who don’t have the wealth to hire housekeeping and childcare help, if they want them. Whether or not Mrs. Romney chooses to avail herself of that help is beside the point; the truth is that the “work” she does is work she has chosen. For many of us, work is not an option–it is a daily necessity, and it must be done in addition to child nurturing. Most of us are forced to work both outside and inside our homes, raise our children, and, if we are in a relationship, nurture that as well. The work Mrs. Romney does, she does by choice.
And good for her–it must be nice to be in that position. Or maybe not–I’m sure Mrs. Romney struggles with her own challenges. But it’s just plain silly for the Romneys to pretend that Mrs. Romney’s challenges can be equated with the challenges less affluent women face. On the day that someone reveals that Mrs. Romney does all of the cleaning, cooking, carpool, errands, childtending, shopping, and bookkeeping for her family singlehandedly–and on a strict, limited budget–on that day the Romney’s can compare her “work” with that of the vast majority of stay-at-home moms. It’s simply not the same, and asserting that it is makes the Romneys look like spoiled children who have no clue how the rest of us really live.
The pathetic story of the young Romneys forced to struggle through college on nothing but a trust fund and stock sales is another case in point. To refer to themselves as “starving students,” as Ann Romney does, is insulting to those of us who survived college on summer wages, winter jobs, limited parental aid, student loans, and ramen. They were not “starving students.” It’s time for them to acknowledge that, give thanks for it, and open their eyes to the fact that their privileged experience is in no way comparable to that of most of us.
I hesitate to start listing “gaffes”–let me only say that many of them only serve to reinforce the central truth not that the Romneys are very wealthy, but that their good fortune has created a safe, privileged bubble in which they have lived their life. And good for them. I think that if you asked them honestly, they’d probably say the same thing. They have lived their life in a world of privilege, and have shown no sign of wanting to change that–or of moving out of their world far enough to understand the realities those not born into privilege face daily. It’s insulting and disingenuous for them to now try to “have their cake and eat it” by pretending that their cushioned existence is comparable to the average American’s life.
And I think that’s the crux of the matter for me–I don’t expect a presidential candidate to be “like me”–I would actually hope that he or she would have a broader, more encompassing grasp of a great many things than I do. The fact that the Romneys are wealthy isn’t the issue, either–most of our Presidents have been wealthy. I think, for me, the issue is that Mr. Romney’s continued efforts to reveal how very much “like me” he is only serve to underscore the differences between us–and reinforce the idea that Mr. Romney neither sees nor understands them.
Perhaps most telling is that he repeatedly overlooks the human cost of “good business.” For Mr. Romney, the ultimate measuring stick is the bottom line–in his work for Bain Capital that was right and appropriate, to a point. He was tasked with earning returns for investors. The fact that many of the policies he instituted might have hurt a lot of people was just collateral damage in the pursuit of that goal. His remarks that he “likes firing people,” that “corporations are people,” and the list goes on and on, only serve to underscore this.
It’s not that I’m against progress–I believe companies need to operate efficiently, and that often they don’t. I understand that some business changes are going to adversely affect some people. But when people are put out of work so investors can reap obscenely large rewards, I have to wonder about the value system that makes that all right. I have to wonder how much thought is being given to helping the workers being put out of work to find other ways of supporting their families.
I suspect not much–because, after all, in Mr. Romney’s world, we all have trust funds, and stocks we can sell. We all have parents who have, if not millions, at least enough to be able to spot us the start-up money for a new business without dipping into their retirement. We all have household and child care staff to tend our multiple homes, if we want it. Why should he worry? And that, I think, is Mr. Romney’s biggest woman problem in my house.
It’s not that he’s wealthy–it’s that he can’t understand that the rest of us aren’t.