Ann Romney, 'Stay-at-Home Moms,' and the 'Choice' Trap

Whoever dreamed the phrase "stay-at-home mom" to update "just a housewife" had a passive-aggressive streak.


"Stay-at-home mom" has entered our political lexicon with a vengeance, and we all know why. The Hilary Rosen-Ann Romney cable brou-haha. I won't belabor the particulars. Whoever dreamed that clever one up to update "just a housewife" had a passive-aggressive streak. The phrase is a conversation stopper, but not for the reasons Clark Judge, my bloleague, gives. At least not for me.

What the term does, in four easy pieces, is throw flowers on the grave of the women's movement—and then give it a good kick. It is a defiant way to say, "Yes, I may have gone to Penn (or some other excellent school) and then law school, but don't you dare question that choice."

[Scott Galupo: Mitt Romney Didn't Flip-Flop on Stay-at-Home Moms]

Choice. No, the women's movement was not so that well-educated women could choose to drive around in their SUVs, sunglasses, and soy lattes. That is not what Alice Paul, who led the suffrage movement to victory (do you know the year?*) had in mind at all when she got force-fed in jail. She did that so that women could break down locked doors to full civic democracy, higher education, and yes, the workplace.

Paul graduated from the excellent Philadelphia Quaker co-ed college, Swarthmore, so she was more privileged than most in her era. She was also fortunate to be born and raised a Quaker, the most egalitarian religion going. Women's voices are heard in Quaker meetings for worship. I tell you all this because women had to fight so hard, take to the streets, just to vote.

Paul felt that with the vote went so much more: equal rights and equal opportunity to excel and lead in their fields. She'd say we need all those women driving all day long for a larger purpose. Society needs their generation's capability, especially after investing in them. Society deserves their training, skills, and leadership right about now.

[Jamie Stiehm: Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich Need a Lesson in Women's History]

To be clear, I'm speaking of my generation, the first to have all the doors open, after the women's movement succeeded in breaking down the doors to the Ivy Leagues, to the military academies, to the professional schools, and other single-sex institutions. They did not admit women lightly; Congress had to order West Point and the other academies to do so. The University of Virginia, a publicly funded school since Thomas Jefferson's day, did not admit women students for the longest time.

I'm afraid we took all that too lightly--for granted. We spent a lot of organizational energy on dream weddings and frequently fell behind at work by taking a lot of time off when children came along, and you know the rest in four words: A "stay-at-home mom" sounds so perky. Why it has to be "mom" not the more dignified "mother," I don't know, but I'm sure there is a reason. Find the guy who made it up.

In a way, Michelle Obama exemplifies what I mean on a scale writ large in the White House. Extremely well-educated with a Harvard law degree she hides, she has taken to more womanly pursuits such as gardening, fashion, and two carefully chosen safe causes.

[See pictures of Michelle Obama.]

Ann Romney, a baby boomer, does not belong to the younger stay-at-home mom generation group represented by Mrs. Obama. Of Mrs. Romney, I will say she is a beautiful, vivacious speaker, talented at horse dressage—not to mention mothering five sons without much help from Mitt. She's very good at her job: being a rich man's wife and a mother of sons in one of the most patriarchal religions around.

So let's not expect Mrs. Romney to plow forward on women's place in worlds outside: the workplace and the government. These are places she has never been before in her own right, by her own choice.

There it is again, that tricky word. Choice is seldom what it seems.

*In 1920, women won the right to vote. Woodrow Wilson, the president, was not a fan.

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