Ann Romney took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Tampa Tuesday night, talking of nasty weather, and the clouds parted. She seemed to be sunshine itself. In a bespoke, belted, Oscar de la Renta shirtdress of fire-engine red—with a glorious blonde coif that will no doubt inspire salon requests—Romney looked like a pinup girl on a USO tour. A bombshell. At 63. She was fantastic.
I’m not going to guess how it happens: the American ingenuity, technological advances and plain wherewithal that combine to make a woman of 63 to look 30. I remember noticing it when Laura Bush appeared in powder blue at the 2004 RNC. But last night, viewers of the generic (and so far tedious) Republican National Convention found their eyes and ears refreshed when Romney swooped in. She talked about the hurricane. But then she talked about love.
There’s just something about a woman with lots of sons. The Romneys have five, born between 1970 and 1981. In “Bridesmaids,” the character with sons, Rita, considers her three an affliction: “They smell, they're sticky, they say things that are horrible.” (And that’s only the printable part.) Ann Romney, too, talks gravely of her five as something she has endured—a near-mythic ordeal that has purified and toughened her. She doesn’t get specific. She just implies. When she says five boys, we just know.
The women know, that is.
Because Ann Romney’s speech was for women—and she called us by name, and didn’t seem to care that she was leaving out half of her audience.
Since the Clinton era, politicians have talked feelingly about parents—mothers and fathers—as though the work and worry of parenthood were equally shared. But without invoking culture wars, Romney appealed to women’s intuition (of all things!) to suggest there was nothing equal about family life in her home. She began by talking about “that love so deep only a mother can fathom it”—maternal love—and then brought up a “great collective sigh” of frustration and exhaustion she said she could almost hear at day’s end.
“If you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men,” she said. “It's how it is, isn't it? It's the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.”
It’s how it is, isn’t it? Girls were girls and men were men. This was a grand and retro move: to paint women as the loving, sighing slaves of the world. And it paid off. This mom, anyhow, found it profoundly endearing and altogether natural. It’s the way a formidable, bombshell grandmother might talk sotto voce to a younger woman, hinting that we alone do all the work and know what’s up. It hit the spot. It gave courage. For a moment, it also separated women voters from the men in their lives, and conferred on us status and perspective and even sanctity that, at the end of that day, was a deep and guilty pleasure.
Romney may have pushed it too far—"I love women!!!!"—but her repeated conspiratorial questions (“You know it’s true, don’t you?”) turned the speech intimate. She was like a rock star who seemed to be singing just for you.
Women: we sigh harder. It’s a flattering if conservative view, to see feminine suffering as unique and ennobling and the stuff of this nation. It may have been enough, for some female viewers, to reduce the sighs and up the smugness last night. But will it be enough to turn women into Romney voters? Sigh. Who knows?