By Audrey Pietrucha
Group-identity politics have provided an excuse for yet another round in the mommy cat-fights. When Republican front-runner Mitt Romney said he relies on his wife for insight into women’s issues the claws came out, with Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s comment that stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” leaving the deepest scratches.
Rosen and her supporters claim Mrs. Romney, whose version of stay-at-home momhood is certainly not the usual variety, cannot speak for the “average” working woman because her life experience is so different. Implied by these remarks is someone actually is qualified to speak for all women, maybe even someone like Ms. Rosen herself. Yet a Washington insider who has probably had access to many of the same amenities as the Romneys as far as household help and private schools go is really no more qualified to speak for women than Ann Romney. Ironically, that the most “average” woman to appear on the national political stage in recent years was Sarah Palin and we all know how well her ordinariness was received.
Thankfully, we’ve learned not to expect consistency from the political minions whose job it is to divide Americans into groups that fight amongst themselves while the political class goes about its business unconstrained. The problem with group-identity politics, however, is no group is completely cohesive and monolithic. Within every group of people labeled according to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, class or what-have-you is a diversity of personalities, characters and experiences that make each member of that group unique. The smallest minority is the individual and no one spokesperson can truly speak for anyone except himself or herself.
Another value group politics completely ignore is that of empathy. Group partisans openly hold that unless you are a member of that group you cannot know their experience. True, of course, but human beings are certainly capable of compassion and empathy toward their fellow beings. Not every hospice worker has suffered from cancer and not every Peace Corps volunteer has experienced poverty and hunger but they can imagine and therefore act based on their own understanding of human suffering. Group-identity politics divide us along the lines of our individual experiences and circumstances rather than unite us through our common humanity. The divisiveness of this approach guarantees old wounds will never heal.
Speaking of old wounds, Rosen’s characterization of Mrs. Romney as someone who has never worked a day in her life was rightfully taken as an insult to women who make motherhood their fulltime avocation. Rosen quickly issued a lukewarm apology for her remarks but political apologies are rarely genuine and we can probably assume Rosen’s initial reaction was her honest one. She is not alone in her disdain for women like Ann Romney but only part of that disdain is due to Romney’s wealth and every SAHM knows it. In our materialistic world, those who don’t function as cogs in the wheel of production are devalued and dismissed.
It was Leslie Bennetts, a special correspondent for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, who actually had the guts to say what so many people believe- it’s the money, stupid. While making the obligatory observation that motherhood is difficult no matter who you are or how you do it, she also said “let’s stop pretending that that’s the same as working for a living.”
Well, she’s right about that. Fulltime motherhood is not like working for money. There are no paychecks and no promotions. There aren’t award ceremonies nor recognition dinners, overtime pay or even vacations. There is, for many a SAHM, the desperate need to prove her worth, to prove to herself and her critics she is relevant. She volunteers her time at the school, the library, the church and on the soccer field. In appreciation she may receive a certificate at the year-end awards ceremony or even a bouquet of flowers but even this feels half-hearted. After all, why shouldn’t she volunteer her time –what else does she have to do?
Eventually her children grow up and go away but, especially in the age of cell phones, she is always on call for them. Still, she finds herself with time on her hands and is possibly the desire to reenter the workforce. The workforce, however, may not return her enthusiasm. Though she has spent years organizing, managing, teaching, learning and creating, it wasn’t official so it doesn’t count.
At the beginning of the American experiment, the home was the literal and figurative birthplace of the American citizen and mothers were considered the vital link between republican government and an educated and public-spirited citizenry. Women had been an integral support of the American independence movement; boycotts of British goods could not have worked without women filling in gaps with homespun cloth and other home-produced goods. Long before suffrage women were beginning to recognize and enjoy their own political power.
Today, that power is fragmented, scattered among the many competing concerns that occupy the modern mind. Women who focus their time and talents on home and family are trying to reclaim that fundamental power. They do with fewer material comforts and conveniences to invest more in their relationships and communities. They understand material values are not the only ones that guide and sustainchildren and society and willingly sacrifice professional pride and prestige to what they believe is a greater purpose.
These mothers – parents, actually because many men are finding their place is in the home these days – reject the notion that work must be paid in order to be fulfilling. They forfeit the accolades of the world for the quiet contentment of doing what they believe is right and good. This is not to say women who work at home are better than those who work away from home – but they surely are just as good.
Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the Vermonters for Liberty executive board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.