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Romney's Evolution on Women: How Deep Does It Go? Romney's Evolution on Women: How Deep Does It Go?

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / ANALYSIS

Romney's Evolution on Women: How Deep Does It Go?

It's unclear what kind of advice he'd give now as a church leader.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, kisses his wife, Ann, with his family onstage at his Florida primary night rally in Tampa on Tuesday.(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

photo of Coral Davenport
February 2, 2012

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.”

That was clear many years later when Romney, newly elected as governor of Massachusetts, hired Taylor to be his executive assistant. “I went in for the interview and he said, ‘You look familiar to me.’ And I said I had been president of Exponent II. And he chuckled. And I said, ‘Is that going to be a problem?’ And he said, ‘Not for me.’ And he hired me on the spot,” she said.

Taylor said working with Romney years after their confrontations showed her that he had changed. “When he ran for governor, he was a different person, more mature,” said Taylor. “He’s just experienced a lot more life and has a lot more realistic perspective.... Knowing him now, I believe he would respond in very different ways than he did back then.”

The Romney campaign declined to respond to questions about his record with women as a bishop or stake leader, and whether his advice would be different now. But the campaign—which has a female press secretary and communications director—did offer up a 2004 report by the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society. It found that during Romney’s administration, the Massachusetts government had a 50-50 ratio of men to women in cabinet and senior policy positions, higher than any other state. Second-ranked Connecticut had only 36 percent women. 

Beth Myers, who was Romney’s chief of staff in his governor’s office and is now a senior adviser to his campaign, said Romney aggressively recruited women for top positions, several of them from a book of women’s resumes compiled at his request by the bipartisan Massachusetts Government Appointments Project. As a manager, she said, Romney pushed everyone—women and men—to work hard, but also expected employees to make time for family: “The working premise was we would work our hardest and give 110 percent, and he was flexible about hours spent with kids.”

Alan Wolfe, a professor of religion at Boston College, said that while Mormons still hold strict doctrinal views on women within the church, a slow evolution has happened for some in public life. “On race and gender, Mormons have not been in the forefront of the march for equality,” Wolfe said. “But there is a change going on. Mormons, like Romney, have been successful in business and politics, and the more you experience those worlds, the more you see the change. Romney could be a strict Mormon and still appoint women to his Cabinet and Supreme Court.”           

Some Democrats say those early episodes as a church leader may come back to haunt Romney. “People are going to think that they are out of the mainstream,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and co-author, with Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, of What Women Really Want. She added, “I can see examples like these being used to get out the vote. These would alienate young women, unmarried men, and young people, who would think these ideas seem like something from 200 years ago.”

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