The Ann Romney flap and women's roles

The flap over the Hilary Rosen comment about stay-at-home mom Ann Romney only exposes a deeper issue about self-sacrifice – for both men and women.

Credit: West Virginia Veterans' Legacy Project, Glenville State College/AP Photo
Women who worked at a World War II defense plant talk at a forum in Glenville, W.Va., on April 4. The forum featured several 'Rosie the Riveters.' An ongoing project seeks to identify women who served on the home front during World War II and help them share their experiences.

Presidential campaigns often put a mirror up to Americans and expose their unresolved social issues. Take, for example, the comment on CNN by Democratic activist Hilary Rosen about stay-at-home mom Ann Romney.

Her slip-of-the-tongue criticism of Ms. Romney’s economic judgment has unleashed not just a political storm but pent-up public anxieties over women’s roles – especially whether a full-time nurturer of children has less worth than a woman in the workplace.

The debate is a recurring one. Recall the storm over Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign comment in 1992 that “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.”

For almost every woman, that choice can still be difficult – despite decades of progress for women. And government may help or hinder their choices by, say, providing better access to day care or restricting birth-control choices.

Taken at a deeper level, this issue is not just about women or gender roles. Rather, everyone must find the right balance between sacrificing for others and pursuing goals that are not so selfless.  

Oddly enough, self-abnegation is quite common and may even be increasing.

Surveys of American college graduates find those who believe their community is more important than their job has doubled since 1982. And a 2011 global survey by a British charity group found that nearly half of all people had helped a stranger in the previous month – a much higher percentage than for those who gave money or volunteered. (The numbers for men and women were pretty close.)

Giving of one’s self is considered so sacrosanct that President Obama, in proposing the “Buffett rule” of a 30 percent tax on millionaires, made one exception: a deduction for charitable donations.

Genetic scientists keep trying to find an “altruism gene” that can explain unselfish behavior. They might do better by reading the 2010 book “American Grace” by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell.

In a survey, they found religious Americans are better neighbors and volunteer at much higher rates for both religious and secular causes than do secular Americans. The reason is not so much theology as the bonds of friendship and common values that compel the faithful to do good deeds, the survey found. In finding God’s love, they love one another.

Some feminist scholars contend that girls are raised in a culture that imposes an “ideology” of self-sacrifice upon them. Expose the imposition of being a caretaker and women will be free, they say. But that still does not resolve the choice of whether or how much one gives in life.

So the debate must go on, and in public during political campaigns. The “women” issues in politics, however, aren’t always just about women.

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