Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen stirred up a ruckus Wednesday night when she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, can’t relate to American women. "His wife has actually never worked a day in her life,” Rosen said. “She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing."
“I chose to stay home and raise five boys,” Ann Romney responded. “Believe me, it was hard work.”
Attackers and defenders of both Rosen and Romney have not let up since.
But if Mrs. Romney does move into the White House next January, she will be the only First Lady born in the 20th century to have “never worked a day” in her life, as Rosen perhaps clumsily put it.
The last unemployed first lady was Mamie Eisenhower, born in 1896 and married to Ike at 19—the same age Ann was when she married Mitt. That makes Mrs. Romney as dubious an expert on the economic concerns of women as Mamie, an Army wife who moved 28 times, lived in a hotel during World War II, and played canasta and the electric organ.
Mrs. Romney said she chose to stay home and raise her five boys, but her youngest son, Craig, graduated from high school in 1999 and left for a missionary assignment in Chile in 2000. Since then, it’s been an empty nest.
To be fair, in Turnaround, Mitt’s memoir of his time running the Salt Lake City Olympics, he recounts how in February 1999, he left Ann in Massachusetts to take care of Craig until he graduated that spring. But Mitt then decided he “could not turn around the Olympics without her daily counsel,” and she came to Utah after one of their older sons, Matt, and his wife moved into the Massachusetts home to care for Craig.
The Romney campaign didn’t respond to emailed questions about the years the sons lived at home.
Of course, Mrs. Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 90s, though her health issues have not prevented her from making 110 event appearances for her husband in just the first three months of 2012, on top of 106 in 2011.
The First Lady whose work history most closely resembles Romney’s, Barbara Bush, rushed to her defense on Friday, saying that “raising five boys is a handful” and accusing Rosen of taking “a knock at those” who “stay home and take care of the children.” Barbara Bush didn’t work while she raised her kids, but she was working at a factory in Rye after high school when George proposed to her, and at the Yale Coop “to help bolster the family finances” while pregnant with W., according to Pamela Killian’s biography Barbara Bush, Matriarch of a Dynasty. In her own memoir, Barbara Bush described working at Lord & Taylor as well.
What about the others?
Laura Bush spent nearly a decade as a teacher and librarian, working in poor neighborhood schools, and that informed her priorities as First Lady. She told teachers in a 2001 speech, “I know you don’t hear often enough how much we appreciate you.”
“I know,” she added, “because I’ve been there.”
Laura was a strong supporter of funding for teacher-training programs because she said she knew she wasn’t “really prepared to teach,” though she’d graduated with a college degree in education. “I particularly wanted to teach in a minority school,” she said, “and I loved it. I think mainly I just learned about the dignity of every human and every child.” She got a masters at the University of Texas in library science during her teaching career and became the librarian at a tough Austin elementary school.
Nancy Reagan worked as a department store sales clerk and a nurse’s aide before performing in 11 feature films, three of which she appeared in after marrying Ronald Reagan, while he struggled to get acting work.
Pat Nixon cleaned bank floors, harvested beets, corn, barley, peppers, and other vegetables at her family’s “truck farm,” and was an x-ray technician, pharmacy manager, typist, and lab assistant at a hospital. While at college in California, she worked 40 hours a week as a waitress, a beauty-product tester in salons, a librarian, and an assistant buyer in a department store. She became a high-school teacher and continued teaching after she married Richard Nixon, eventually becoming an economist for the Office of Price Administration during the war.
Betty Ford was a lunchtime model at a Michigan department store while a teenager, when she also opened her own dance school. She later modeled furs, hats, and dresses for the John Roberts Powers Modeling Agency in New York, while performing in the Martha Graham Auxiliary Dance Company, eventually returning to the same Michigan department store to become its fashion coordinator and clothing buyer for seven years. She taught ballroom dancing to the blind and deaf, and even worked as a food processor at a frozen-food factory.
Rosalynn Carter worked at a Georgia hairdresser’s shop starting at age 15, after her father’s death. Once Jimmy Carter’s father died and he took over the family’s peanut farm, she managed the books for years. She’s written five books.
Lady Bird Johnson bought a small Texas radio station with her family inheritance and served as manager and chair of the station for four decades, turning it into a media conglomerate. Her bio indicates she kept the financial accounts, hired the talent, recruited sponsors, and “even cleaned up the old facility.”
As accomplished as Jackie Kennedy was in her post-White House life—as an editor at Viking and Doubleday—she had a modest professional life before moving to the White House in 1961, when she was only 30 years old. She was working at the Washington Times-Herald when she interviewed and photographed a young U.S. senator named John Kennedy. She won the top student prize at Vogue, designing an entire issue, including advertising that could be tied into the issue’s content.
Of course, the professional lives of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, both attorneys, are well known.
Research assistance was provided by Jillian Anthony, Irina Ivanova, Clarissa León, Nicole Marsh and Kyle Roerink.