Politics & Policy

More Than a Gaffe

The politics behind Teresa's "real job" remark.

One could almost hear the collective groan of the Kerry campaign staff when they read the USA Today interview of Teresa Heinz Kerry. The seven softball questions like “When you campaign for your husband, what does that tell people about him?” and “Do you have a role model for first lady in mind?” seemed designed to showcase the personable side of Mrs. Kerry. How had Teresa Heinz Kerry managed to turn this innocuous fluff piece into a major campaign gaffe?

But the now-infamous statement that Laura Bush had never held a “real job” was more than just an unfortunate choice of words–it was a reminder of the lingering bias against stay-at-home moms that pervades much of the big-government agenda of America’s Left.

The mea culpa that followed that morning’s edition revealed as much. It began with a sop to school teachers and librarians–“I had forgotten that Mrs. Bush had worked as a school teacher and librarian, and there couldn’t be a more important job than teaching our children.” But even if one believes that Mrs. Kerry “forgot” Mrs. Bush’s work as a teacher and librarian, it leaves open the question of what Mrs. Kerry would now say if Mrs. Bush had never been employed outside the home. Would the implied insult of never having held a “real job” stand had Mrs. Bush’s sole occupation been raising her two daughters?

Mrs. Kerry’s apology includes a reference to her own time served as a “full-time mom”–an apparent attempt to blunt the impression that she devalues the contribution of stay-at-home moms. It falls flat. Mrs. Kerry’s remarks and the follow-up apology are hard to interpret as anything but an implicit insult to full-time mothers.

This isn’t a trivial issue. The leftist feminist movement–a key supporter of the Kerry campaign–has long struggled to move beyond an apparent prejudice against women who elect to forgo careers in order to focus on raising children. But even as they make politically correct noises about valuing all women’s choices, their policy agenda reveals a bias toward women who choose “real” careers.

For example, government-funded daycare is a favorite of feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). But while this initiative might make daycare “free” to some working parents, it has real costs for taxpayers and real consequences for women who want to stay at home with their children. Not only would the costs of government daycare drive up tax rates, making it harder for a family to subsist on one salary, but the availability of this “free” alternative would also reduce the value of stay-at-home moms’ service. Since there would be no monetary benefit to staying at home, many women may feel like they cannot afford not to take up the free daycare and earn money outside the home. The de facto message of such a policy would be that these women should go out and get a “real job.”

Working women should recognize that they too stand to lose from policies that ignore women’s desire to spend time with their children. Feminists groups trumpeting the “wage gap,” or difference in pay between full-time working women and full-time working men, often refuse to recognize the role flexibility plays in women’s employment decisions. Their government solutions to the “problem”–for example, requiring businesses to submit a description of their processes for determining wages to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–seems a surefire way to discourage employers from offering the very flexibility that many working women want.

Much of Senator Kerry’s agenda–with its call for higher taxes and additional spending on preschool, daycare, and after-school programs–would create this same dynamic. As government assumes more of childcare costs, stay-at-home moms’ contributions to their families become less valuable. As the government passes these costs on to taxpayers, living on one salary become more difficult.

The decision that each family makes about how to balance caring for children and staying at home is a personal choice. All women’s choices should be respected and, as much as possible, government should strive to stay out of the decision by giving maximum freedom to individuals and minimizing the government’s burden.

Laura Bush was magnanimous in response to Teresa Heinz Kerry’s insult and apology. Her spokesman relayed Mrs. Bush’s empathy for Mrs. Kerry’s situation: “Mrs. Bush knows that some days are more difficult than others when your husband is running for president.” Other women may wish to join the First Lady in overlooking the insult, but they should not ignore how these biases affect policy.

Carrie Lukas is the director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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