To listen to the pundits, Ann Romney is little more than a "corporate wife" (Fox News commentator Juan Williams), a sexist for "putting a sorority girl grin on a description of women's lives" (Slate's Amanda Marcotte), and a woman who "has never worked a day in her life" (Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen).
To most commentators, the wife of the impeccably coiffed co-founder of Bain Capital — with her penchant for country club tennis, horseback riding and other aristocratic pastimes — is the one percent, par excellence. During the primaries, she gave her critics fodder when she told a Fox News host, "I don't even consider myself wealthy," a gaffe that played into her image, fair or not, as an entitled and removed Stepford wife.
Car elevators aside, her husband's net worth is pegged at around $200 million, and the financial assets are in her name. The Romneys are the one percent of the one percent.
What was remarkable about Mrs. Romney's speech Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., was how it blew away these cliched caricatures. The reason her speech resonated so strongly with voters — Mr. Romney's personal approval ratings jumped 5 points overnight in a snap poll in battleground states — is that she was able to humanize her husband and identify the Romneys with ordinary Americans.
She did this by appealing to the concept of family — specifically, of motherhood.
"Sometimes I think that late at night, if we were all silent for just a few moments and listened carefully, we could hear a great collective sigh from the moms and dads across America," she told a packed audience at the convention. "And if you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men."
The moms of this country, she said, are what hold it together.
Being a hard-working stay-at-home mom may not be a desirable or politically correct identity to media commentators, but it's the identity that is most true to who Ann Romney is.
Isn't it? Or is this image of a relatable, hands-on, often harried, mom who earned her spurs raising five rambunctious boys merely a politically expedient role Mrs. Romney is playing for the sake of her husband's political ambitions?
If it's all an act, it's certainly a long-running one.
When Mrs. Romney was still an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, she decided to forego a career and postpone her studies in order to start a family. She married Mr. Romney in 1969, when she was 19 years old. They had their first baby in 1970. By then, she was living in Belmont, Mass., with her husband, who was attending the business and law schools at Harvard.
She finished her undergraduate degree by taking night classes at Harvard University's Extension School. "I was taking exams with babies in my lap and nursing, but I finished," she told the Boston Globe in 2002. By the time the year 1975 came to a close, Mrs. Romney was the mother of three boys — and an official college graduate.
Her decision to have children so young did not sit well with her family back home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., "My parents were questioning my choices, my peers were," she told the New York Times earlier this summer. "But again, I was pretty resolute, pretty confident in what I was doing."
With feminism on the rise, the professional women of Boston would "turn their noses down at me," she said.
Feminists still do.
In the spring, when Ms. Rosen dismissed her as a leisured creature of the monied elite who has "never worked a day in her life," Mrs. Romney took to Twitter for her inaugural tweet: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."
Her hard work did not go unnoticed by her husband. "I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine," Mr. Romney said during his convention speech on Thursday night. "I knew without question that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine."
Mega-rich women, it's true, can afford to outsource the work of raising children to nannies and au pairs. Most of them do so. Mrs. Romney did not. She raised her five children herself, without any outside help.
Her second-youngest son, Ben Romney, confirmed this on Facebook in a response to Ms. Rosen's remark: "For my Mom to raise us 5 boys, the way she did was, in my mind, the most demanding — and hopefully rewarding — work she could have done," he wrote. "Growing up, we never had a nanny or a 'mommy's helper.' Never went to daycare."
Even in the 1980s, as Mr. Romney was getting richer and richer at Bain Capital, "The family had no cook or full-time maid," according to a 2007 report in the Boston Globe. It was only after an emergency operation following the birth of her youngest son that Mrs. Romney hired help. And it doesn't sound as if the pattern she set while raising her boys has really changed much now that they are grown. According to IRS forms, the Romneys had four housekeepers in 2010. Their combined salaries were only $20,603, not enough for full-time help.
Mrs. Romney did not allude to these facts before her adoring audience Tuesday night in Tampa — an odd omission in a speech meant to dispel class-conscious stereotyping of her family as an out-of-touch, idle rich clan and align the Romneys instead with everyday American experiences and values. After all, the common experience of maintaining a household, raising children, and worrying about their future, particularly in this dismal economy, is one thing — maybe one of the few — that still transcends class and wealth in this country.