Mitt Romney has a picture-perfect 42-year marriage, a solid record of naming women to his teams, and a good case to make that he has evolved with the times when it comes to the role of women. It’s his role as a Mormon church leader that could give some women pause and prove challenging if he wins the Republican nomination and must compete with President Obama.
Interviews conducted by National Journal show a two-time presidential candidate and former governor who hires women as senior advisers for trusted positions, and whose views on some aspects of women and family appear to have evolved from his early days as a church leader. That could reassure the middle-of-the-road female voters who will be pivotal in the fall election, and who may be concerned by Romney’s past.
But the interviews, along with anecdotes from The Real Romney, published this month by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, also offer a portrait of a young leader who adhered firmly to traditional Mormon doctrine even as he tried to acknowledge the concerns of his female congregants. Church doctrine places women in subordinate roles, forbids premarital sex, and discourages homosexuality, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births.
In the 1980s, Romney acted first as a bishop, or congregation leader, of his Mormon church in the Boston area, and then rose to the post of the leader of the Boston Mormon “stake” or collective of congregations. The Real Romney describes two striking incidents from those days:
--In 1983, a congregant and former Romney babysitter named Peggie Hayes became pregnant. She was 23 and divorced. Romney visited her at home and urged her to give up her unborn child for adoption. The book says Romney threatened Hayes with excommunication from the church if she didn’t comply. Romney has denied that he ever threatened Hayes, but Hayes said his message was crystal clear: “Give up your son or give up God.” Soon after the birth of her son, Hayes left the Mormon church.
--In 1990, the feminist Mormon journal Exponent II published an unsigned essay by a married woman who some years earlier faced an unplanned sixth pregnancy and was told that she had a serious blood clot in her pelvis. She said she was told her life was at some risk and the baby had a 50 percent chance of survival. Romney, her bishop, advised her not to have an abortion and did not believe that her stake president, a doctor, had recommended she have one. She described his attitude at her time of need as one of “judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection.” Romney has said he doesn’t recall the incident.
During the same period, Romney had a string of run-ins with Exponent II. Helen Claire Sievers, a member of Exponent II, recalled teaching a women’s church-group workshop on domestic abuse. “I was very surprised at the number of women who told me stories of spousal abuse,” Sievers told National Journal. She advised Romney to warn his bishops that this was widespread through the stake but “he was pretty sure it wasn’t happening.”
Sievers said she and Romney disagreed in part on the definition of abuse—which she defined as including ultra-controlling behavior, such as approving when a woman could leave the house, or what grocery items she could buy. “There was a man who told Mitt that he was abusive to his wife, and Mitt said, 'No, you’re not.' ” It was so hard for him to understand what was thought of as spousal abuse,” Sievers said.
However, Sievers said that in other cases, Romney made an effort to work with Exponent II. Sievers asked Romney to arrange a meeting to discuss their concerns about their subordinate roles, and to make changes within the Boston congregation. Romney clearly didn’t relish the prospect of the meeting, Sievers recalled—but still agreed to it with a smile. “I think he would just as soon we didn’t exist. He was friendly opposition,” she said.
In the end, she said, Romney listened closely and respectfully to the women’s demands, writing down on a board what he could and couldn’t do within the absolute confines of church doctrine. “If there was a possibility, a crack in the door, he found a way to make it happen,” Sievers said, even “knowing that it would be looked at unfavorably by the leaders in Salt Lake. The vast majority of Mormon men would never do this.”
Barbara Taylor, the president of Exponent II at the time, agreed. She told NJ about arranging a screening of an anti-Mormon film “in order to see what the propaganda was, what we were up against,” but “Mitt essentially forbade us to have the screening. And we said, ‘Sorry, but we’re going to do it anyway.’ He was flexing his patriarchal muscles. We were flexing our feminist muscles. But lightning didn’t strike.”