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Did her Religion Matter? Lenore Romney as Political Wife and Candidate

By: Natalie R - July 24, 2013

Lenore_Romney_1970_campaign_commercialThe deceased Lenore Romney, the mother of 2008 and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the wife of republican governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969 George Romney, came into the spotlight in 2012 when both Time Magazine and the Washington Post featured stories that covered her effect on her son’s political career. Both stories featured her failed run for a senate seat in Michigan in 1970.  Compared to the contemporary images of Ann Romney as a housewife, what was most striking about these stories was not that Lenore Romney did not win the election for the U.S. senate seat but that she had run for office at all. It is necessary to note that Ann Romney also did actually run for and win a public office position  in the 1970s. She was elected as the town meeting representative in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1977.[1] However, probably because she has not pursued her own political career, the story has fallen mostly by the side after her husband stepped into political spotlight.

The example of Lenore Romney as a Mormon political wife and political candidate defies easy categorization of her story as either that of a typical Mormon woman or a typical conservative woman. Her role as a political spouse and figure allows one to understand how she balanced her various political beliefs with her own status as a mostly politically conservative woman in the long moment during the beginning of the feminist movement and before the rise of the Religious Right and the now longstanding (and often misleading) conflation of conservatism and profound religiosity.

Lenore Romney’s background before marriage fit–with a few exceptions–the stereotypical background of a young Mormon woman in the mid-early twentieth century. She was born in Logan, Utah in the early twentieth century and grew up in Salt Lake City.   She eventually attended the American Laboratory School of Theatre in New York before moving to Hollywood to pursue acting. However, she discontinued her acting career when George Romney asked her to marry him in 1931. Throughout her married life to George Romney, she refrained from paid work to raise her children and was often involved in multiple speaking engagements and served in various capacities for civic, political, and charitable groups in her role as Michigan’s first lady.

She was never hesitant to articulate her stance on woman’s place in society. In 1971, she stated: “The role of women doesn’t begin and end with homemaking. A woman needs to contribute to society to make her life worthwhile.”[2] Lenore Romney’s comments do not disparage or dismiss the role of a stay at home wife and mother yet references her belief that it was a woman’s duty to act as informed and responsible political citizen. This statement also fits within a long tradition of the earlier generation of Mormon women who fought for women’s suffrage and some of who ran for political office in the early days of Utah’s statehood. Forty-one years later in 2012, DNC adviser Hilary Rosen commented that Ann Romney had “actually never worked a day in her life.” In response, taking advantage of her new twitter account, Ann Romney tweeted: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”[3] While the sentiments expressed in these two anecdotes are from mutually exclusive, it reveals a shift in thinking and illuminates a change in tone regarding the role of the housewife or stay at home mother. Ann Romney’s statement indicates that is more than—to borrow Lenore Romney’s word—“worthwhile” to just do the “hard work” of a stay at home mother.

During her candidacy for the republican senate seat in Michigan in 1971, Lenore Romney was quoted more than once as saying, “I am a stand-in for no one” as a response to the assumption she was merely running to represent her husband. [4] George Romney, who was then President Richard Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development, kept an unexpectedly low profile during his wife’s political campaign only to become more involved closer to the election.  She ultimately lost the election to longtime Michigan democrat favorite and incumbent Senator Philip A. Hart.  The reasons for her loss were numerous but were tied to three principle factors: the fact that she was a woman, a vague campaign, and complicated behind the scenes turmoil in the national Republican Party. However, her religious status as a Mormon—even after her husband’s discontinued presidential campaign in 1868– never seemed to be prominent determining factor in her political defeat.

What stuck most with Lenore Romney as to the main reason for her defeat was the fact that she was a woman. One of her campaign slogans “Never before has the voice and understanding of a concerned woman been so needed” centered around what differences she had to offer to the political world in Michigan as an elected woman. Reflecting on her landslide defeat to Hart in November of 1970, she told Look magazine in 1971: “I found in my campaign that many men and women openly resented the fact that a woman would even try to unseat a man.” This reluctance to elect a woman in the 1970s did not sit well with Lenore Romney, who living during a historical moment in which more and more American women were gaining and taking advantage of their political rights. It is be difficult to situate all of Lenore Romney’s politics directly within the burgeoning feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. A Milwaukee Journal article from 1975 stated she openly supported the passage of the Equal Right Amendment (ERA)—which would become a very unpopular move for Mormon women—yet she also declared that “the women’s rights movement should not overlook the importance of women in the homes.”[5] Despite recent claims that she supported access to safer abortions for women, there is growing evidence that she was actually against abortions.[6]  Nonetheless, there is no doubt her rhetoric was affected by larger trends within the movement.

Lenore Romney’s experience as a political wife (and subsequent political candidate) parallels but also contrasts sharply with the experience of Ann Romney.  Of course, their experiences took place in remarkably different times in American  history. George and Lenore Romney’s religious status merely served as a curiosity to the many of the numerous non-Mormons in Michigan in the 1960s and earl 1970s. The fact that Lenore Romney was asked to be involved with numerous religious and interfaith groups during her time as Michigan’s first lady suggesting that many non-Mormon religious leaders valued her involvement and, perhaps, religious views.  Whereas—as we all know—Mitt Romney’s two bids for president held a great deal of responsibility for the most recent widespread interest in Mormonism.  The United States’ most recent fascination with Mormonism also centered on the sometimes implicit and often explicit question of whether the United States was ready to have or would even elect a Mormon as President. Throughout the 2012 campaign season, Ann Romney was constantly characterized as a wealthy wife and mother who was out-of-touch with the needs of the many members of the voting public.

When considering Lenore Romney’s failed run for the Michigan senate seat in 1970, it becomes apparent that to the contemporary Michigan voters it was not that her religious status did not matter, but it was not (obviously) as much of an issue as it may have been today. It leads to larger questions about what matters during regional and local political elections compared to those on the national level. Additionally, it also affirms the importance of placing Lenore Romney’s campaign within the larger historical tradition of Mormon women’s political activism whether it be for suffrage in the nineteenth century or as an exception to the massive movement against the ERA in the 1970s.  Finally, it also points the possibilities of moving away from a black and white interpretation of Ann Romney’s experiences as just a candidate’s wife and stay at home mother but utilizing an analysis that takes her identity as a Mormon convert, her various health issues, a sometime reluctant politician’s wife, and other personal factors into consideration.



[1] Ashley Parker, “At Romney’s Side, A Determined Running Mate,” New York Times, June 15, 2012. Accessed July 23, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/16/us/politics/at-romneys-side-a-determined-running-mate.html

[2] Amy Bingham, “Five Things You Probably Don’t Know About Mitt Romney’s Mom,” ABC News, May 11, 2012. Accessed July 22, 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/facts-mitt-romneys-mom/.

[3] Emily Friedman, “Ann Romney Fights Back: Debuts on Twitter to Counter DNC Advisor’s Insult,” ABC News, April 11, 2012. Accessed July 213, 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/04/debuts-on-twitter-to-counter-dnc-advisors-insult/

[4] Brady Dennis, “For Mitt Romney, Mother’s Failed Run Offers Cautionary Tale,” Washington Post, February 12, 2012. Accessed July 22, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-mitt-romney-mothers-failed-run-offers-cautionary-tale/2012/02/23/gIQAXtQAYR_story.html

[5] “Mrs. Romney Talks of Women’s Roles,” The Milwaukee Journal, Thursday, April 17, 1975.

[6] A salon.com article reported how 2002 claims Mitt Romney made that his mother advocated for pro-choice policies directly contradicted comments of hers that were quoted in an Owosso, Michigan newspaper: “I think we need to reevaluate this, but do not feel it is simple as having an appendectomy. … I’m so tired of hearing the argument that a woman should have the final word on what happens to her own body. This is a life.” Justin Elliot, “Romney Misled Voters on his Mom’s Abortion Stance,” Salon.com, January 12, 2012. Accessed July 22, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2012/01/12/romney_misled_voters_on_his_moms_abortion_stance/

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Fascinating, Natalie. Thanks!

    Comment by Christopher — July 24, 2013 @ 7:47 am

  2. This is fascinating! Do you know what the church’s response to her decision to come out in favor of the ERA was? Did she change her position?

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 24, 2013 @ 9:29 am

  3. Amanda, I do not know actually though I suspect it was not a favorable response. I haven’t spent as much time as I should looking into it. I don’t remember seeing anything about it in her collections in Ann Arbor though I do suspect it could be there. I agree it is very fascinating and deserves much further exploration!

    Comment by Natalie R — July 24, 2013 @ 9:55 am

  4. Very nice, Natalie!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 24, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  5. Really insightful stuff, Natalie. I was unaware of her run for senate. Thank you.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 24, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  6. It should be noted that her support for ERA predated the church’s stand against ERA, which was not taken until December 1976.

    My father, a catholic, was the Michigan state commander of an influential veteran’s group, and he was very involved in George Romney’s campaigns for governor. Religion was pretty much a non-issue. I didn’t even realize the Romneys were LDS until years later.

    A few years later, another Mormon woman, Paula Hawkins of Florida, ran for the US Senate and won.

    Comment by Naismith — July 24, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

  7. Yes, her support of the ERA predates the church’s official stand. However, I suspect that her position was still viewed as unfavorable by many and was not a popular option among Mormon women. It leads me to wonder if her separation from Utah allowed or affected this decision.

    Comment by Natalie R — July 24, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

  8. Great, Natalie.

    Comment by jjohnson — July 24, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  9. This is great, Natalie. Any plans to do something more formal on Lenore and Ann, perhaps in a print journal?

    Comment by David G. — July 24, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

  10. Yes, I do plan on doing something more formal. I definitely plan on returning to look at Lenore Romney’s papers during this upcoming yet.

    Comment by Natalie R — July 24, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

  11. This is great stuff, Natalie.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 24, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

  12. I cannot forgive Lenore Romney for leaving her tiny baby for six months to go to Europe with her husband. Or maybe it was only six weeks. It was a long time to leave a newborn to show support with her husband. Who could get his own milk from the fridge.

    Comment by annegb — July 25, 2013 @ 9:59 am

  13. Dear Annegb: I fail to see how it is mine or yours or anyone’s business, let alone right or privilege, to “forgive” Lenore Romney for her parenting choices, especially when those purported choices were made decades ago, and without verification of the actual details.

    Natalie’s post offers a great reminder of how Mormon women historically have found themselves trying to balance the pull between their private, domestic, lives, and their public, professional, or outside interests. That strain was not unique to Lenore anymore than it was to early Mormon women who traveled and left their children for weeks, months, and even years, while they pursued medical education, suffrage activism, and political lobbying.

    But thankfully, your misguided comment illustrates an ongoing and pervasive problem for some women– and that is the constant compulsion to cast judgment on one another for our parenting and professional choices. And whether or not I agree with either Lenore’s or Anne’s political beliefs, I am grateful that both of their lives stand as reminders that we need to recognize and honor the choices of ALL women– even if their choices are not what ours would be.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — July 26, 2013 @ 11:44 am

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