Mitt Romney and the Cult of True Womanhood

Kudos to the Up With Chris Hayes team for unearthing this video of Mitt Romney, at a New Hampshire rally in January, lauding his record of requiring mothers of children as young as 2 to experience the “dignity of work” as a condition of receiving public benefits. So, apparently, raising children is only work if you look like Ann Romney.

But this type of double standard is nothing new. Our political and public discourse around the family–to our great detriment–often behaves as though history began in the 1950s. But the idea that there are two types of women–White, married, virtuous, affluent “true women” and then pretty much everyone else–is an old one, dating back at least to the Victorian Era Cult of Domesticity. While “true women,” by confining themselves to the domestic sphere and womanly arts of childbearing, rearing, and making a harmonious family home, both required and deserved men’s protection from the slights of the harsh world, it was tough cookies for the majority of women who didn’t fit that model (from white working class women, to widows and single mothers, to women of color, like Sojourner Truth in her famous speech)–not to mention their kids.

And that’s pretty much exactly the attitude on display here, as well. Interestingly, the Cult of Domesticity, by placing the creation of a harmonious and virtuous home environment as a true woman’s primary objective in life, and the protection of that environment as her husband’s, actually provided a justification for huge inequalities of wealth and income and abuses of workers by these same virtuous husbands during the Victorian and Gilded Eras–and we may be seeing something of a similar dynamic today in conservative positions on economic inequality and the labor market.