What the First Ladies do

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen stirred up a ruckus 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.”

By Wayne Barrett (Flashback)

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Published: Thu 19 Apr 2012, 8:28 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:29 PM

“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.

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.

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 defence 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. 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. 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.

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.

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. She was working at the Washington Times-Herald when she interviewed and photographed a young US 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.

Wayne Barrett is a Newsweek/Daily Beast contributor and a fellow at the Nation Institute

© Newsweek

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