Ann Romney’s Big Night at the RNC

Ann Romney had a big job to do at the RNC last night:  to create a sense of feeling and affection for a candidate who has struggled to connect with voters.

And when I tuned in to her convention speech, I started to listen as a progressive, but then found myself listening as a Mormon woman.

After all, it is no small thing for a Mormon woman like Ann Romney to be standing before a national audience. She is probably the most visible Mormon woman since—no joke—Marie Osmond. And her speech was a historic moment for us: a chance to see ourselves on television as something other than polygamist wives. That actually doesn’t happen very often.

I started seeing her as I imagined other Mormon women were seeing her:  beautiful, successful in her family and marriage, strong-minded, decisive, confident, forceful. I found myself dialing into the rhythm of her speech—a rhythm familiar to those of us who have watched LDS General Conferences.  

I nodded when she explained to the audience why Mitt Romney doesn’t talk more about his faith, focusing not on the fine points of what Mormons believe, but on the best of what Mormons do: the acts of service performed for one another. Romney gave plenty of service as a lay pastoral leader for Boston-area congregations. But, as Ann Romney explained, “Mitt does not like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.” 

(Tagg Romney made a similar point earlier in the day about how Mormons are taught not to brag about acts of interpersonal service. This is an important way the campaign is seeking to humanize Romney during the convention: by presenting his reticence to talk religion not as an effort to hide something, but rather as decorum.)

But I heard Ann Romney hit the edges of her voice when she shouted, “I love you, women!”

One of her jobs tonight, after all, was to endear Governor Romney to the women voters among whom he has been trailing President Obama by several points.

It was her job to get us to fall in love with her husband, to believe he would be as reliable and hardworking and devoted to us as he has been to her. 

And to forget that the Republican party routinely adopts positions on matters like pay equity and contraception access and coverage that oppose what most American women understand to be their best interests.

In this difficult position, the best Ann Romney could do was emphasize the relational model to which political wives are so often tethered. I remember that Michelle Obama did it in 2008, describing the moment when Barack drove his baby daughter home from the hospital, so we women would see him as someone to trust.

It’s a model that leads women to that close, familiar space of being told that we are incredible and all-powerful and that—just between you and me—it’s us who really makes everything run, but that what we really need is one truly outstanding and hardworking man to make everything better.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.