You have to hand it to Ann Romney. A few months ago, she was handed one of the toughest tasks in politics - to ‘humanise’ automaton husband Mitt, a man who gives the strong impression of an alien unfamiliar with human norms passing himself off as the US President in a bid to annihilate the earth.
The idea was clearly that the warm and likeable mother of five would rescue her spouse from a level of unpopularity with women rivalled only by a teenage boy who has yet to form a meaningful relationship with deodorant.
Somehow, in her six months of turbo-charged cheerleading on her husband’s behalf, she has pulled it off, with the latest polls showing that the two candidates are now neck and neck with female voters.
President Obama’s staggering 18 point lead amongst women of a month ago has now vanished into thin air. Obviously Ann can’t take all the credit for this. Amongst other factors, the President’s lacklustre performance in the first presidential debate cost him dearly, but her considerable contribution should not be underestimated. She has her own charter airplane, holds her own fundraisers, campaigns at her own events, often does more interviews than her husband, and insiders say she is ramping up her campaign even further for the final stretch leading up to election day. Ann has been a slick and effective operator.
It is this skill and reach which makes the would-be First Lady such a paradox, and her message such a dangerous one. In years gone by, political wives of the ‘cookie-baking adjunct’ model tended to take a back seat in public life, and let their husbands do most of the talking. Not so, Ann. Deceptively sweet and apolitical, like a souped-up Mamie Eisenhower, she makes full use of 21st century rights and freedoms to drive home a powerful anti-feminist message. With her campaign directly and almost exclusively targeting women in both tone and message, Ann has created an almost entirely separate 'politics for girls.' In doing so, she is pushing the cause of women’s equality back to the 1950s.
Ann Romney is the living embodiment of the Harry Enfield, “Women, Know Your Limits” sketch of the early nineties, a spoof public information film, in which a woman who finds herself at a dinner party full of men discussing the economy is advised to say: “oh, I don’t know anything about that, but I do love kittens.”
Skilfully sidestepping awkward policy questions, Ann instead actively promotes a view of women as emotionally driven, a bloc of voters to be cherished not challenged, who should not bother their pretty heads with difficult questions, but stick to their strengths- motherhood, martyrdom and love.
Back in April, when the great national conversation took a nasty turn down the road marked ‘Abortion, Contraception and Equal Pay’ Ann took the stage at the National Rifle Association convention:
“You know I heard recently something, how women were being referred to as a special interest group…” she began, promisingly. To thunderous applause she continued:
“…There is only one part of that phrase that is correct. Women are special!”
Her husband Mitt regularly picks up this patronising riff:
“Ann’s job as a mom is much more important than mine” says the would-be leader of the Free World at various campaign stops, in much the same maniacally syruped-up tone I use to tell my toddler what a “WONDERFUL HELPER” he is as he flails a broom handle into my eye. (Anyone seeking to understand Mitt’s true views on the relative importance of full-time childrearing versus presidential candidacy, are probably better advised to look to his proposal that single mothers on welfare be compelled by the state to return to the ‘dignity of work.’)
Ann’s keynote speech at the Republican Convention, generally accepted as a naked appeal to women voters, took her Disney Princess approach to gender politics to a whole new level.
“Tonight I want to talk to you about love,” she began, continuing mistily like a Mills and Boon audio book.
Her speech a painted a metaphorical vision of America’s careworn women, the “mothers the wives, the grandmothers, the big sisters, little sisters and daughters” (in Romney’s world women are defined relationally rather than individually) collectively waiting for the right man to come and rescue them, the silver-templed Commander in Chief, to lead them safely home from harm, his broad manly shoulders spanning from sea to shining sea.
"Ann’s considerable influence on the crucial female voting bloc is well known."
Anyone thinking that Ann’s campaign is little more than a diverting sideshow, the political equivalent of a television playing ‘Bambi’ on silent in the background, is mistaken. Ann’s considerable influence on the crucial female voting bloc is well known. Of the pair, she is the true politician - by far the better communicator, the more likeable and probably the brighter, with perfect pitch for what female voters do and don’t want to hear.
Consequently the portrait she paints of women’s concerns is as powerful as it is damaging- lovers and admirers, mothers and martyrs, but not equals. This firmly cements the idea that women in general are not thinking voters, swayed by policy, but romantic fiction stereotypes, guided in their political understanding only by their emotional whims. In other words, the exact reasons given why anti-suffragists used to argue that women should not be given the vote in the first place.
With the full force of a 21st century PR juggernaut at her disposal, Ann Romney has breathed new life into 1950s gender roles and, if the recent polls are anything to go by, American women apparently find this self-conception to be deeply compelling. This subtle and seductive agenda has potential consequences for women every bit as damaging and far-reaching as draconian Republican policies on abortion or contraception. A rewinding of the clock by stealth, Ann Romney’s vision threatens to set the cause of equality back sixty years.