Last night the RNC made its appeal to female voters, and Ann Romney’s speech really was an exemplar of the form, putting a sorority girl grin on a description of women’s lives that, stripped of sentimentality, reads like a laundry list of the daily injustices women face for no other reason than being women. This part, in particular, jumped out at me:
And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It’s how it is, isn’t it? It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right. It’s the moms of this nation—single, married, widowed—who really hold this country together. We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters. You know it’s true, don’t you? You’re the ones who always have to do a little more. You know what it’s like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report, which just has to be done. You know what those late night phone calls with an elderly parent are like and the long weekend drives just to see how they’re doing. You know the fastest route to the local emergency room and which doctors actually answer the phone when you call at night.
In sum, she offered up a description of what feminists call “systemic sexism,” a list of the very injustices feminists have worked, with some success, to eliminate. If it was Gloria Steinem saying the same words in a speech at the Democratic National Convention, Rush Limbaugh would be having an on-air heart attack right this second. A thousand well-coiffed Fox News anchors would be rushing on air to denounce this liberal nonsense about a “war on women.” Yet, there Ann Romney was, acknowledging that even conservative women know it to be true: Women work harder for less pay and less respect. She described sexism in fairly blunt terms.
So how does Ann Romney get away with this? Because she framed it not as a problem to be fixed but a trial that women have to endure. She put a positive spin on it, claiming that these extra struggles make us women extra good. Instead of demanding equality, she encouraged her female audience instead to take their payment in martyrdom.
It was actually refreshing! Most of the time, the battle over sexism in this country is over the facts. Feminists declare sexism a problem. Anti-feminists respond by denying that it even exists, insisting that equality has been achieved, implying women only fall behind because they aren’t up to the task (which is, of course, in itself sexist). Ann Romney instead stood up and admitted that sexism is real and that it actually structures women’s lives. Instead of fighting, she empathized, and implied that there is some consolation for women in knowing of their own moral superiority to men. Set aside the fantasy of equality, ladies, she seemed to say. We all know how life really is. As the capper to ladies’ night, it was a very telling speech.