At an event for Mitt Romney last night, Ohio Governor John Kasich did his best to pay tribute to women by talking about the difficulties of being a political spouse.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You know, they’re at home, doing the laundry and doing so many things while we’re up here on stage.… [it’s hard] to put up with the travel schedule and have to be at home taking care of the kids.”
To tell the truth, I’m not outraged over Governor Kasich’s remarks. He was just complimenting women the only way he likely knows how—by acknowledging their domestic acumen. Given the outrageous remarks about women lately—from “legitimate rape” to slutty birth control users—suggesting that all political wives do is the laundry is the least offensive comment from a Republican in months.
Besides, to conservatives, recognizing women for their roles as wives and mothers—rather than as individuals unto themselves—is a fabulous compliment. It’s a pat on the head for all those ironed shirts. But this focus on women’s caretaking is more than just misguided attempt to woo female voters, it’s a disturbing window into the very limited way that Republicans view women.
After Ann Romney’s epic RNC “I love women” moment, MSNBC host and Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry noted how her speech focused on women “in their relational roles—women are mothers, women are widows, women are wives.”
“Actually women are lots of other things,” Harris-Perry said. But not in the Republican imagination, where women are happiest and home and most fulfilled by their husband’s accomplishments—not their own. Where being a leading lady means loving your supporting role.
It’s as if Republicans view wives as unpaid interns—expected to do grunt work just for the experience and joy of being part of someone else’s success. (At least the interns get something on their resume out of it.)
This isn’t to say that the care and domestic work that women do isn’t important—it is. In addition to the important task of raising children, domestic labor is what allows these politicians to do their public work. As Jill Filipovic has written, “Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about.”
They have someone who is raising their kids, cooking them dinner, cleaning the house, maintaining the social calendar, taking the kids to doctor’s appointments and after-school activities, getting the dry-cleaning, doing the laundry, buying groceries and on and on (or, in the case of 1% wives, someone who coordinates a staff to do many of those things). That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive.
But if you’re going to value domestic work, really value it—don’t just give it a wink and a pinch on the butt. And that’s the problem with this constant veneration of women as wives and mothers—it’s all talk. It’s easy for male politicians to acknowledge their wives’s hard work when the expectation is that this is simply what women exist for—and even easier to vote for policies that assume the same. Because if we’re just wives and mothers—not individual people with their own desires—what do we need with pesky things like the right to bodily autonomy or equal pay? After all, we have laundry to do.
For more on gender politics, read Katha Pollitt’s take on Naomi Wolf’s new book.