The public dust-up over Ann Romney and stay-home mothers played out in a particular way in Romney’s own community of Mormon women, who are twice as likely to be housewives as non-Mormons.
Mormon culture and preaching is strongly protective of distinct gender roles, with church members more likely than Americans of any other faith group to say it’s better for women to stay home and men to work outside the house.
On Thursday and Friday, with reports flying about a Democratic pundit’s comments that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life,” Mormon social media outlets were bustling. The vast majority of Mormons lean Republican, but even some liberal and self-described feminist Mormons felt defensive of the candidate’s wife.
“These are people who have a lover’s quarrel with the church, and were upset to a person that such a comment could be made about a stay-home parent. It seemed to undermine women’s work,” said Jana Reiss, a Mormon writer and religion professor. “Among all Mormons, feminist or not, they identify with the primacy of the family, and this seems like a comment that just dismissed the family as an appropriate calling for anyone.”
The private Facebook page of Mormon Feminist Housewives, a group blog that’s among the most-read of Mormon blogs, included many commenters concerned for the respect of stay-home parents.
“Even liberal Mormons will feel protective of Mitt Romney. I’m not going to vote for Romney but I will defend his lifestyle and his culture,” said Lisa Butterworth, an Idaho mother of three who founded the blog in 2004.
Some commenters on the Facebook page wondered if the controversy was a sign that Mormon culture or doctrine would be coming up more, now that the presidential field appeared to be effectively down to two.
“I think racism and LGBT issues will probably be at the forefront, and gender inequality will take a back seat as always,” wrote one woman.
Others saw sexism in the criticism of the pundit, Hilary Rosen. “She sounds really reasonable. That misrepresentation of women with opinions is sooo reprehensible to me right now,” said one commenter.
The issue of gender — as any potentially controversial issue — is raised cautiously in the tight-knit Mormon Church. The church officially opposed the Equal Rights Amendment “because of its serious moral implications.” In 1987, church president Ezra Taft Benson gave a seminal talk called “To the Mothers in Zion,” that urged working moms to “come home.”
But more recent comments have been more nuanced and leaders have worked to make working women “feel at home,” said University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, a Mormon who writes about religion. “Both church publications and sermons from LDS leaders have recently emphasized the specific needs of working women, including single mothers.”
He mentioned one by a church apostle, or top leader, Quentin Cook, from 2011, that said women who stay home need not apologize for their choice and that church members should not be judgmental of those who work outside the home.