Nothing excites the American population like a new battle in the ‘mommy’ wars. Nothing ensures patriarchal rule with the certainty of ’mommies’ mutually assured destruction. So long as we look askance at one another at block parties and in boardrooms, we’re sunk.
Ann Romney married a wealthy, powerful man and devoted her adult life to raising their sons and managing their households. I have no doubt she developed strong muscles and a stalwart psyche to deal with the challenges of parenthood in the public eye. She worked hard, but she never had the unnerving anxiety that her choice to work at home had undermined her family’s capacity to pay for the structure or save for their collective future.
Sarah Palin’s plight as the working-mother, mayor of Wasilla exercised her physical and mental muscles as well, but in a different manner than Ann’s. No family fortune secured the Palins against the vagaries of the economy. Her husband’s career offered little hope of providing Sarah with enduring wealth. So Palin put her baby on her hip, hit the national stage, and set about to guarantee her progeny’s place among the “haves.”
Ann Romney’s struggles with illness underscored her public image as a mother-martyr. We all suspect that she sacrificed her own health to support her husband’s ambitions. By contrast, the nation roared with laughter when Sarah Palin sacrificed her dignity to support her daughter on Dancing with the Stars. They are very different Republican mothers separated by an uncrossable class divide.
The republican mothers of the eighteenth century charged themselves, like Ann Romney, with raising virtuous sons able to rule the new republic. Republican motherhood, then as now, looked different depending on the mother’s household economy. Those with financial security could focus their efforts on imbuing their sons with their values, which included the core belief that engagement with the market economy inherently corrupted their virtue and ability to govern.
Those further down the social ladder dirtied their hands literally in garden soil or metaphorically behind the shop counter, which put their son’s and their own virtue in peril. They could demonstrate their patriotism by forgoing tea and sewing their own clothes, but they had likely done both from economic necessity before it became a revolutionary gesture. The mantel of gentile motherhood evades those who engage in the rough and tumble of the masculine world. Sarah Palin better resembles females who snuck onto the battlefield. Such characters demonstrated patriotic desperation, but parents never held up “Molly Pitcher’s” exploits for emulation.
Joe Scarborough correctly pointed out during the most recent battle that not only wealthy mothers like Ann Romney decide to stay home and raise their children. Many less affluent families decide that a parent – frequently female – will cease paid work for a different form of contribution to the household. In the twenty-first century, homemaking offers a starker choice than in the eighteenth century when children slept above the shop or scampered through the fields behind their parents. Machinery allows parents to spend less time cleaning and cooking and permits us to emulate republican mothers who depended upon servants. Such machines do not maintain the skills needed to labor for money whether on an assembly line or in argument before the bench.
We all make choices. They all have costs and benefits. Neither Mitt nor Ann Romney ought assume that they know what I care about any more than Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Hillary Rosen. The point of republican motherhood at its inception was to rear young men capable of making good choices for the common good. When women stop judging one-another’s choices and focus on enabling each of us to make our own with the greatest freedom and the least fear, our republic may finally “remember the ladies.”