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Mitt Romney and the Women Who Don't Love Him

Why the presumptive GOP nominee has zero game with female voters, explained.

| Fri May 25, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

There's no evidence that Romney had much experience with the emotionally rough and tumble world of dating, where women can provoke emotional vulnerability in even the manliest of men. At a time when lots of young men were still sowing wild oats, Mitt and Ann were having kids, the first within a year of marriage, while they were both in college at Utah's Brigham Young University. (The Romneys eventually had five boys, ensuring that Mitt would be spared any confrontations with that alien species—teenage girls—as he got older in his male-dominated household. Even Seamus, the Romneys' now-famous Irish Setter, was a guy.)

The Mormon-church-owned BYU was hardly the place for Romney to expand his interactions with women. While the women's movement was rapidly breaking down barriers for women after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination on the basis of gender, BYU maintained a long-standing prohibition on hiring married women of childbearing age, leaving few women as faculty members or administrators.

When Romney arrived on campus in 1969, the school still had a ban on women's pantsuits. Church leaders had partly designed BYU as a place for women to find husbands and learn skills that would make them better wives and mothers. (It's still a running joke among female students that they're attending BYU to obtain an "RM"—or "returned missionary.")

At the university, Romney spent his free time in BYU's all-male "Cougar Club," raising money for the school and leading religious meetings of the club's members when not in class. After graduating in 1971, Romney entered an elite and virtually all-male joint law and business program at Harvard, where just 10 percent of the MBA students were female. Romney later moved on to the testosterone-fueled world of finance at Bain Capital. He has acknowledged that his firm had few women in positions of power—only about 10 percent of the firm's vice presidents were women.

She wanted the baby and planned to raise it by herself. But Romney informed her that the church believed she needed to give her child to the LDS adoption agency.

Romney carried this guy-centric history into politics. In his first political race, in 1994, Romney's traditional family and long marriage could have been a selling point, especially given that Ted Kennedy was suffering in the polls largely because of his own issues with women. A few years earlier, Kennedy had been forced to testify in the rape trial of his nephew, William Kennedy Smith, because he had been out drinking with Smith the night Smith was accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

During that Senate campaign, Romney ran as a moderate and tried to cast himself as the anti-Kennedy: a devoted family man who'd never strayed from the path. In a well-meaning attempt to bolster that image, Romney's mother, Lenore, volunteered to an interviewer that Mitt and Ann had waited until they were married to have sex. Still, Romney lost the women’s vote by historic proportions.

It's possible that Romney's straight-laced and pious bearing might have hurt him in that race. Some infamous womanizers have been good politicians perhaps because they were good at connecting with the ladies (see Bill Clinton). Romney seems handicapped in this area. He often comes off on the campaign trail as someone who isn't terribly interested in listening to ordinary voters. He has a habit of ignoring questions that he doesn’t want to answer. And he doesn't demonstrate much empathy, a liability that may disproportionately hurt him among women.

Recall the incident in South Carolina in January when an African American woman approached the rope line and told Romney about her economic woes. At such a moment, Clinton might have offered her a big bear hug. Romney offered her cash, pulling $50 to $60 out of his pocket and thrusting it upon her. Romney was clearly trying to be nice, yet the gesture came off as patronizing. It's a quality that’s likely to be off-putting to women, who are sensitive about having their ideas and complaints dismissed by men.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney's campaign, responded to questions for this story by forwarding a 2004 study showing that when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he had the highest percentage of female appointees in the country. And Romney has employed women in senior campaign posts. One example is Beth Myers, the longtime Romney adviser who's heading up his vice presidential search and who served as his chief of staff in Massachusetts.

Romney has indeed shown the ability to take women seriously and to rethink his views of their issues when pressed to do so. In 1993, he was serving as the Belmont LDS "stake" president when a group of feminists in the church were agitating for more equitable treatment. Romney grudgingly met with the 250 women to consider their demands, which included installing changing tables in the men's room and the opportunity to address the congregation the way men could.

When Romney showed up at the meeting, he brought the tools of his trade: flip charts and markers. His approach, and his follow up, which included implementing a number of the women's demands in the church, left the female congregants feeling hopeful. Many of them who've spoken to the press in recent months point to that meeting as evidence that Romney is capable of being responsive to women's concerns.

But then there are other stories from his time as a church leader that show different, more domineering interactions with women. Among the most oft-repeated incidents is one in which Romney visited a divorced woman from his church who'd become pregnant with her second child out of wedlock. She wanted the baby and planned to raise it by herself. But Romney informed her that the church believed she should give her child to the LDS adoption agency because she was unmarried. If she refused, the woman recalled, Romney said the church would excommunicate her. She ended up keeping her baby anyway, and later quit the church. (According to The Real Romney, a new book written by a pair of Boston Globe reporters, Romney would later deny that he had threatened to excommunicate the woman. But she told the Globe reporters that Romney's message "was crystal clear: 'Give up your son or give up your God.'") The side of Romney that is capable of making such a demand on a mother may be the part of him that many women voters, consciously or not, find unappealing.

In many ways, Romney is a case study for the old feminist argument that gender equality isn't just good for women, but good for men, too. His life in the monastery of paternalistic, male-dominated institutions has garnered him great riches and success. But his life in the boy's club has also given him few opportunities to practice genuinely connecting with ordinary women who make up the female voting bloc—a problem that could doom him in November.

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