Last night was billed as "women's night" at the RNC, an event that came at the heels of a year rife with discussion about Planned Parenthood, access to birth control, and most recently, a stunning string of ignorant comments by Republican lawmakers about rape and abortion. Mitt Romney needed a fan, and his wife was it.
After a parade of women took the stage—a brief but energetic appearance by Black Mormon Congressional candidate Mia Love, halting speeches by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and a Sarah Palin-like Obama roast by Gov. Nikki Haley—Ann Romney swooped in to sell her husband hard to the women of America. I gotta admit, she was pretty appealing. She looked radiant in a bright red dress that uncannily matched her lipstick and nails. Her high-pitched laugh was adorable (even if it meant she was a little nervous). She gushed about the boy she met at a high school dance, and reassured us over and over how much she's still head-over-heels for him. She went off-script and ebulliently (if crudely) shouted, "I love you women!" to a crowd littered with "Women <3 Ann" signs. Haley wasn't wrong about Ann Romney's role in this campaign: She undoubtedly has been instructed to act as her husband's "silver bullet" in order to close the gender gap.
But once I got past all the showboating, her speech unfurled a common yet painfully traditional characterization of women. "If you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men," she said. "It's how it is, isn't it? It's the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right." She went on to say that it's women who have to kill themselves for respect at work and then come home and help with the book report.
She's right, of course, but the trouble is, Ann Romney didn't present this dynamic as a problem. She offered it as a given. Women have it a little harder and worry a little more because it's "how it is." It's not because of, say, the wage gap or the deeply entrenched cultural expectation that women have to "balance" work and home, while men are free to pursue the careers they want.
Not only that, a Mitt Romney presidency wouldn't solve these problems. Mothers "who love their jobs, but would like to work just a little less to spend more time with the kids" won't exactly be helped by a jobs climate hostile to unions or raising the minimum wage. And Mitt Romney, who's not sure he would have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, has no plans to further equal pay for women, either. Ann Romney gave a nod to that couple who would like to have another child but wonder how they will afford it—forget about the woman who's just fine without a kid but struggles to pay for her birth control or find an abortion clinic within an 100-mile radius. She acknowledged that "the last few years have been harder than they needed to be," citing how school sports have turned into a luxury. Of course, she conveniently neglected to mention widespread Republican-driven cuts to education.
The martyr mom isn't a new political tactic—everyone from Michele Bachmann to Michelle Obama has played the concerned mama card. But very few assert that it doesn't have to be this way. "We don't want easy," Ann Romney assured us last night. But we do want our lives to be easier. So why shouldn't women want a First Lady who not only admits that life is hard, but who explains how her husband is going to make it better?