Ann Romney works hard! (at being rich)

Nicole Colson reports on the war of words over stay-at-home mothers--and argues that neither Republicans nor Democrats really cares about working-class women.

Ann Romney addresses her husband's supporters at a campaign rallyAnn Romney addresses her husband's supporters at a campaign rally

THE REPUBLICAN Party struck a blow for women's rights when it went on the offensive last week against degrading comments made by Democrats who tried to smear stay-at-home moms as lazy.

Come again? If that sounds off to you, you're right.

The uproar was about comments by Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen, who Republicans claimed had denigrated mothers when she said that Ann Romney, the wife of multimillionaire and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, "has never actually worked a day in her life."

At least that's the quote from Rosen that was repeated endlessly in the media. Actually, Rosen said a lot more than that in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper about the Republicans' strategy of appealing to women voters on the issue of the economy:

What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, "Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing."

Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we--why do we worry about their future?

Immediately, Republicans and the media pounced on Rosen and the Democrats for being disdainful of "stay-at-home mothers"--and the Democrats almost as immediately threw Rosen under the bus.

Ann Romney created a brand-new Twitter account to let the world know just how wounded she was. "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys," she wrote. On Fox News, she added, "My career choice was to be a mother, and I think all of us need to know we need to respect choices that women make."

Breaking news! A Republican thinks we should respect the choices women make. Just as long as they don't choose to have an abortion, be a single mother or have a same-sex relationship.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ROSEN'S WORDS may have been easily twisted, but it ought to be clear to anyone that she wasn't talking about stay-at-home mothers in general, but about one particular, very rich, very out-of-touch and very conservative stay-at-home mom.

The gist of Rosen's point is indisputable: Ann Romney's life as an incredibly wealthy woman means she's never been in a position where she had to work outside of the home and children. She has never known the kind of economic struggles working-class and poor families face.

To say that Ann Romney--who, with husband Mitt, had a declared income of $20.9 million last year and a net worth of around $250 million--is out of touch with the struggles of ordinary women, whether they work outside the home or not, should not be controversial.

The mother of five grown children drives, in Mitt's own words, "a couple of Cadillacs." According to the Washington Post, it's actually a 2007 and 2010 Cadillac SRX--one registered in California and one in Massachusetts. "The 2010 model of the luxury compact SUV," the Post reported, "retails for about $36,000 to $50,000, while the 2007 model retails for $38,000 to $44,000."

Then there's the couple's six reported homes, including a $5 million ski lodge in Utah and a $12 million oceanfront mansion in La Jolla, Calif., which the couple is currently renovating with plans to quadruple its overall size and to install an elevator in the garage for the couple's cars.

Yet last month, in an interview with Fox News' Neil Cavuto, Romney declared, "I don't even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing. It can be here today and gone tomorrow, and how I measure riches is by the friends I have and the loved ones I have and the people I care about in my life."

It's a measure of just how obscenely wealthy the Romneys are that Ann Romney could say something so obscenely stupid.

As for her "career choice" to "be a mother," working outside the home is not a "choice" for most women with children--it's an economic necessity.

According to Politico.com contributor Tara McGuinness, some 73 percent of working-age American mothers are now working outside of the home--up from 52 percent in 1980. For most of these women, their job is necessary to put food on the table and make ends meet.

In 2009, even as the economic crisis was hitting hard, a survey of working mothers by the CareerBuilder.com website found:

Thirty percent of working moms whose companies have experienced layoffs in the previous 12 months are working longer hours than they used to. Fourteen percent of surveyed moms have taken second jobs during the last year to make ends meet. Combining family needs, financial woes and busy schedules, it shouldn't come as a surprise that 34 percent of moms admit to feeling burned out these days.

Additionally, 43 percent of surveyed mothers said they worked more than 40 hours each week. Sixteen percent of working mothers bring work home at least twice a week, and 6 percent bring work home with them every day.

What the study reveals is not career women "ditching" their families, as the conservative stereotype of working mothers suggests--but of women desperate to keep the jobs they have, so they are willing to work harder and longer.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

OF COURSE, the Republicans never let reality get in their way. Within days of Rosen's remarks, the GOP was flogging travel mugs with the phrase "Moms do work! Vote GOP".

But the truth is that Ann Romney doesn't know what it's like to "work" in the way that working-class and poor women do, whether they are in the workforce or not.

Romney won't ever have to worry whether she will be able to put food on the table for her children, or if her crappy car will break down when she's rushing to pick up her kids up from after-school. She's never had to wonder how her family will make the rent or the mortgage payment, or whether her kids will get new clothes at the start of a school year.

And she certainly won't ever face the prospect of trying to get help from the government to feed her family or put a roof over their heads--help from a program that politicians like her husband want to tie to requirements that women work outside the home.

In January, Romney told a crowd while on a campaign stop in New Hampshire that one of his priorities as governor of Massachusetts had been making sure welfare recipients were employed outside the home--whether or not they had even small children:

I wanted to increase the work requirement [for those on welfare]. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, "Well that's heartless." And I said, "No, no, I'm willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It'll cost the state more providing that day care, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work."

So, poor women with children need to know the "dignity of work"--but rich women like Ann Romney should be respected for their "career choice" to never hold a paying job.

Hypocrisy doesn't get much more rank.

None of this is about "dignity" at all, but about scapegoating the poor on the one hand and masquerading as having "family values" on the other.

Politicians like Romney are the first to propose cutting welfare, food stamps and any other social program to help low-income families--and families headed by single mothers bear the brunt of the cuts.

Republicans led the way in demonizing poor women, especially poor Black women, as lazy "welfare queens" during the 1980s. But it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who finished the job in 1996 when he signed a law that gutted federal welfare programs and replaced them with "workfare" requirements that pushed single mothers into low-wage jobs, sometimes at the expense of union workers.

Today, the legacy of welfare's dismantling in the 1990s are worse conditions for poor women--especially if they have children--even when they can find employment. And the situation has actually grown worse during the Great Recession, as a New York Times article shows:

Since 2007, 11 states have cut the [welfare] rolls by 10 percent or more. They include centers of unemployment like Georgia, Indiana and Rhode Island, as well as Michigan, where the welfare director justified cuts by telling legislators, "We have a fair number of people gaming the system." Arizona cut benefits by 20 percent and shortened time limits twice--to two years, from five.

Politicians like Romney--and Bill Clinton, for that matter, though he employs more sympathetic rhetoric--justify the time limits and work requirements as ways to give the poor an "incentive" to find work. But they have no answer to the question of where those poor single mothers are supposed to find jobs in an economy that has shed so many in the past several years. As the Times article continues:

Pamela Loprest and Austin Nichols, researchers at the Urban Institute, found that one in four low-income single mothers nationwide--about 1.5 million--are jobless and without cash aid. That is twice the rate the researchers found under the old welfare law. More than 40 percent remain that way for more than a year, and many have mental or physical disabilities, sick children or problems with domestic violence.

Using a different definition of distress, Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard examined the share of households with children in a given month living on less than $2 per person per day. It has nearly doubled since 1996, to almost 4 percent. Even when counting food stamps as cash, they found one of every 50 children live in such a household.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

PERHAPS THE only thing more pathetic than the Republicans' attempt to pose as the "real champions" of women was the Democrats' complete capitulation to the right wing.

Within hours of Rosen's interview on CNN, nearly every leading figure in the Democratic Party, from Obama on down, was criticizing Rosen and calling on her to apologize. After some brief resistance, Rosen did so.

None of the Democrats made anything of the fact that Ann Romney's experience as a stay-at-home mother is infinitely removed from the experience of most women. It would have been easy to point out that Hillary Rosen was talking specifically about Ann Romney's obscene wealth, or that the Republicans' talk about "respecting women's choices" is a complete fraud.

Instead, the Democrats instinctively caved, to avoid being painted as radical and in the hopes of appealing to some mythical moderate voter. The party line won out once again over reality.

Political commentators have been speculating for a while now about Romney's "woman problem" in the general election--that with the Republican Party so fundamentally hostile, not only to a woman's fundamental right to control her own body, but on other issues like access to health care, laws against wage and job discrimination and so forth, it would be hard for Romney to attract independent women voters.

Which is why the Republicans immediately jumped on the Rosen interview. Now, they claim, it's not the Republicans who are carrying out a "war on women," but the Democrats.

Rosen herself doesn't deserve much sympathy. She's a highly paid strategist who sells access to the White House and the Democrats for a living through her firm, SKDKnickerbocker.

But the idea that Republicans can actually posture as the "party of women" is stomach-turning. And the fact that their opponents within the narrow two-party political system are letting them get away with it is worse.

The gains made for women's rights in the 1960s and '70s--from reproductive rights to anti-discrimination laws and equal pay measures--have been under attack for decades. But it's worth remembering that these steps forward weren't accomplished by Democrats or Republicans, but by thousands of ordinary women who fought for their rights.

Today, neither party represents the interests of ordinary working-class and poor women, or their families. The fight for our rights and equality--both inside the home and outside it--depends on rebuilding an independent women's movement.