In the latest skirmish in the “war on women,’’ Ann Romney stood firm against criticism from a Democratic strategist that she was unfit to advise her husband, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on women’s economic concerns because she “has actually never worked a day in her life.’’
By day’s end Thursday, Fox News was announcing a “war on stay-at-home moms,’’ Barbara Bush was rushing to Ann Romney’s defense, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was selling “Moms Drive the Economy’’ bumper stickers, and Republicans and Democrats were grappling for control of a debate that had veered wildly off track.
After months of defending against a purported Republican war on women - most notably when the GOP campaigned against mandated contraceptive coverage - Democrats were suddenly on the defensive.
President Obama told a reporter: “there’s no tougher job than being a mom,’’ while Michelle Obama took to Twitter to praise all mothers as hardworking.
Romney’s campaign meanwhile corralled Republican women to capitalize on the slight, and Ann Romney even created a new Twitter account, identifying herself as “Mom of five boys. Grandmother of 16.’’ Her first tweet noted: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.’’
In the face of a public backlash, Hilary Rosen - the CNN contributor and Democratic strategist who criticized Ann Romney for never having dealt with “the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing’’ - was initially unapologetic. She goaded Ann Romney further on Twitter by posting, “most young American women have to both earn a living and raise children. You know that don’t u?’’
By evening, Rosen had apologized asking to “put the faux ‘war against stay-at-home moms’ to rest once and for all.’’
But the exchange threatened to steer the presidential campaign from a debate over women’s economic struggles to a battle to bring candidates’ spouses into the fray, said Republican strategist Todd Domke. It also neatly encapsulated the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum of working motherhood.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,’’ said Jennifer Nassour, who has been on both sides of the mommy wars, working long hours as chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party before quitting last fall to stay home and have her third child. “Nothing is easy when you’re a mother. It’s not easy to go to work and leave your kids, and it’s not easy to stay at home. And I think anyone who discredits a mother who decides her career is going to be at home with her children needs a reality check and needs to go to talk to women who manage households.’’
Yet some saw Rosen’s criticism as apt, highlighting the unusual privilege that the Romneys hold.
“I’m not offended by it because I know what she was trying to say: A lot of women would love to have the luxury of staying home with their kids,’’ said Elizabeth Sherman, an assistant professor of American politics at American University. “The Ozzie and Harriet world that Ann Romney and Mitt Romney have lived in all their lives is just not the reality for millions of American men and women.’’
These days, about 75 percent of women with children under 6 are in the paid workforce - up from about 50 percent 30 years ago, Sherman said. But given the anxiety in today’s economy, Ann Romney represents a family structure that many find comforting and want to defend, Sherman said.
“This ideal, mythical, happy, very religious family where the mother is devoted full time to children and supporting her husband and taking care of the house - for most women, those days are gone, if they ever existed in the first place,’’ said Sherman. “I think there are plenty of working women out there who would say, ‘She’s lucky, but there’s no way she’s going to understand the challenges that I’m facing in my life, the job challenges, the income challenges, the family challenges.’ ’’
Ann Romney has her own challenges - breast cancer and multiple sclerosis - which she mentioned in an interview on Fox News on Thursday. In that interview, she also turned a Democratic talking point on its head by saying women should be respectful of other women’s choices.
“My career choice was to be a mother, and I think all of us need to know that we need to respect choices that women make,’’ she said.
Her surefooted interview on the personal, controversial issue helped solidify the public impression that Ann Romney has emerged as a solid surrogate for her husband on the campaign.
“She’s a phenomenal speaker. I think she has grown so much. She is so first-lady-like,’’ said Nassour. “Not only that, but she makes you feel as though you’re a lifelong friend. She’s very warm.’’
Domke noted how much Ann Romney’s public presence has grown since the 2008 campaign.
“She’s definitely improved. I think she’s responded to the pressure that the campaign needed her to step up to humanize Mitt,’’ said Domke. “People see in Ann Romney’s case, that she’s very appealing without trying to be. People sense that she’s genuine. There’s more hope that it will rub off on Mitt.’’Glen Johnson of the Globe Staff contributed material to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.