New Look at Mitt Romney's Time as Mormon Leader Shows He's Always Been Bad for Women

Last night, after dinner was eaten and the homework was done, I had a rare 45 minutes to read newly-arrived magazines before they were a year old and buried under a pile.

And so I picked up the current issue of Vanity Fair to read about Mitt Romney.

And here is what I learned: Though Romney has been a chameleon on many issues, not least of which are women's rights--changing from a "pro-choice" position when running for office in Massachusetts to a radical anti-choice position now that he is competing for the Republican nomination for President in 2012--he has been utterly and thoroughly consistent in his actions regarding women's lives and roles within patriarchal systems.

I maintain and have always maintained that no matter your party affiliation, the label "pro-choice" means almost nothing unless you walk the walk. That Romney is a panderer extraordinaire when it comes to the rights and health of women is now indisputably clear: You can't go from supporting Roe v Wade to supporting a federal law granting fertilized eggs more rights than women without revealing complete disregard for actual living, breathing women.  But what I find most revealing about Romney's personal "pro-choice" era--the time during which he lived in and was building a political life in Massachusetts--were his actions as a spiritual and religious leader in the Mormon church faced with individual women in need. In the words of one woman, "At a time I needed nurturing and support [from Romney], I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection.”

The article by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman focuses largely on Romney's role in the Mormon Church, and how Romney built his fortune, including the history of his leadership of Bain Capital. I recommend it highly if only for the excellent and in-depth treatment of how Romney amassed a fortune some estimate at close to $1 billion (hard to pin down because he refuses to release his tax returns) and his imperial style of leadership (keep the masses away!!).

But the authors also do an excellent job of looking at Romney's treatment of women. 

And it is sobering. It reveals a man who is willing to "listen," but often can not seem to understand nor to muster compassion toward people who are in difficult situations.  Moreover, it reveals a man who saw his role as ensuring strict adherence to the patriarchal doctrines of the Mormon faith even at the risk of women's lives.  It's the same old song, just a different denomination now that Romney's on.

Kranish and Helman explain that Romney, recognized early on within the lay-led Mormon church as a leader, rapidly ascended in Massachusetts, serving as a bishop and then a "stake president" overseeing about a dozen congregations with close to 4,000 members. "Those positions," write the authors, "amounted to his biggest leadership test yet, exposing him to personal and institutional crises, human tragedies, immigrant cultures, social forces, and organizational challenges that he had never before encountered."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints "is far more than a form of Sunday worship," they write.  A male-dominated religion in which women women can serve only in certain leadership roles and never as bishops or stake presidents, Mormon theology is also:

[A] code of ethics that frowns on homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births, and abortion and forbids pre-marital sex. It offers a robust, effective social safety net, capable of incredible feats of charity, support, and service, particularly when its own members are in trouble. And it works hard to create community, a built-in network of friends who often share values and a worldview. For many Mormons, the all-encompassing nature of their faith, as an extension of their spiritual lives, is what makes belonging to the church so wonderful, so warm, even as its insularity can set members apart from society.

But, they continue, there is a "rigidity [that] can be difficult to abide for those who love the faith but chafe at its strictures or question its teachings and cultural habits."

How that rigidity played out in Romney's leadership is telling. 

For example, as in virtually every other religious tradition based on patriarchal dominance, there are women within the faith who seek a greater role.  Kranish and Helman write:

The portrait of Romney that emerges from those he led and served within the church is of a leader who was pulled between Mormonism’s conservative core views and practices and the demands from some quarters within the Boston stake for a more elastic, more open-minded application of church doctrine. Romney was forced to strike a balance between those local expectations and the dictates out of Salt Lake City. Some believe that he artfully reconciled the two, praising him as an innovative and generous leader who was willing to make accommodations, such as giving women expanded responsibility, and who was always there for church members in times of need. To others, he was the product of a hidebound, patriarchal Mormon culture, inflexible and insensitive in delicate situations and dismissive of those who didn’t share his perspective.

In 1993, for example, Romney was acting as stake president when a group of women seeking greater roles in the church proposed a meeting with him. He at first demurred but ultimately agreed to the meeting. A group of 250 women made roughly 70 suggestions for changes--ranging from letting women speak after men in church to putting changing tables in men’s bathrooms--that would include them more in the life of the church.

Romney was essentially willing to grant any request he couldn’t see a reason to reject. “Pretty much, he said yes to everything that I would have said yes to, and I’m kind of a liberal Mormon,” Sievers said. “I was pretty impressed.”

Ann Romney, the authors note parenthetically, "was not considered to be sympathetic to the agitation of liberal women within the stake. She was invited to social events sponsored by Exponent II [the name of the group seeking change] but did not attend. She was, in the words of one member, understood to be “not that kind of woman.”"

But others interviewed found that Romney lacked "the empathy and courage that they had known in other leaders, putting the church first even at times of great personal vulnerability."

Romney, for example, strongly pressured Pam Hayes, a single mother who became pregnant for a second time, to give her child up to a church adoption agency. As the mother of a single child, the Romneys were at first helpful to Hayes, hiring her to babysit their children and for odd jobs.  But when she became pregnant for the second time, things changed. Romney not only threatened her with excommunication, but also, in Hayes' eyes, abandoned her as a spiritual leader.

Romney called Hayes one winter day and said he wanted to come over and talk. He arrived at her apartment in Somerville, a dense, largely working-class city just north of Boston. They chitchatted for a few minutes. Then Romney said something about the church’s adoption agency. Hayes initially thought she must have misunderstood. But Romney’s intent became apparent: he was urging her to give up her soon-to-be-born son for adoption, saying that was what the church wanted. Indeed, the church encourages adoption in cases where “a successful marriage is unlikely.”

"Hayes," write Kranish and Helman, "was deeply insulted."

She told him she would never surrender her child. "Sure, her life wasn’t exactly the picture of Rockwellian harmony, but she felt she was on a path to stability. In that moment, she also felt intimidated. Here was Romney, who held great power as her church leader and was the head of a wealthy, prominent Belmont family, sitting in her gritty apartment making grave demands.“

And then he says, ‘Well, this is what the church wants you to do, and if you don’t, then you could be excommunicated for failing to follow the leadership of the church,’ ” Hayes recalled. It was a serious threat. At that point Hayes still valued her place within the Mormon Church.

"“This is not playing around,” she said. “This is not like ‘You don’t get to take Communion.’ This is like ‘You will not be saved. You will never see the face of God.’ ” Romney would later deny that he had threatened Hayes with excommunication, but Hayes said his message was crystal clear: “Give up your son or give up your God.”"

Later, when her son needed surgery and Hayes sought emotional support from the church, Hayes called Romney and asked him to come to the hospital to confer a blessing on her baby. " Hayes was expecting him. Instead, two people she didn’t know showed up."

She was crushed. “I needed him,” she said. “It was very significant that he didn’t come.” Sitting there in the hospital, Hayes decided she was finished with the Mormon Church. The decision was easy, yet she made it with a heavy heart. To this day, she remains grateful to Romney and others in the church for all they did for her family. But she shudders at what they were asking her to do in return, especially when she pulls out pictures of Dane, now a 27-year-old electrician in Salt Lake City. “There’s my baby,” she said.

Romney's lack of compassion is similarly evident in the treatment of a woman whose life was threatened by her sixth pregnancy and who, in any case, was adamant she did not want another child no matter what.

The Mormon Church "allows" abortion--saying it can be "justified"--in cases of rape or incest, when the health of the mother is seriously threatened, or when the fetus will surely not survive beyond birth. But "permission" is not automatically conveyed by the Church even in those circumstances. Such was the case for the woman facing her sixth pregnancy whose doctors discovered a complication with her pregnancy that posed some risk to her life, and whose fetus had a 50 percent chance of survival if born at full-term.

One day in the hospital, her bishop—later identified as Romney... paid her a visit. He told her about his nephew who had Down syndrome and what a blessing it had turned out to be for their family. “As your bishop,” she said he told her, “my concern is with the child.” The woman wrote, “Here I—a baptized, endowed, dedicated worker, and tithe-payer in the church—lay helpless, hurt, and frightened, trying to maintain my psychological equilibrium, and his concern was for the eight-week possibility in my uterus—not for me!”

Romney, it turns out, was not the leader of this woman's congregation but for some reason felt he needed to weigh in. "The woman told Romney... that her stake president, a doctor, had already told her, "“Of course, you should have this abortion and then recover from the blood clot and take care of the healthy children you already have.”"

Romney, she said, fired back, “I don’t believe you. He wouldn’t say that. I’m going to call him.” And then he left. The woman said that she went on to have the abortion and never regretted it. “What I do feel bad about,” she wrote, “is that at a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends, I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice, and rejection.”

Romney, according to the article, "would later contend that he couldn’t recall the incident," but "acknowledged having counseled Mormon women not to have abortions except in exceptional cases, in accordance with church rules."

The article goes on to describe a third incident involving Judy Dushku, a woman who approached Romney for his blessing in carrying out a religious rite, which he denied her because she was married to a non-Mormon, telling her “‘Well, Judy, I just don’t understand why you stay in the church.’ ”

She asked him whether he wanted her to really answer that question. “And he said, ‘No, actually. I don’t understand it, but I also don’t care. I don’t care why you do. But I can tell you one thing: you’re not my kind of Mormon.’ ” With that, Dushku said, he dismissively signed her recommendation to visit the temple and let her go. Dushku was deeply hurt. Though she and Romney had had their differences, he was still her spiritual leader. She had hoped he would be excited at her yearning to visit the temple. “I’m coming to you as a member of the church, essentially expecting you to say, ‘I’m happy for you,’ ” Dushku said. Instead, “I just felt kicked in the stomach.”

While Romney is widely derided for his constantly changing political positions, it seems he is clear on one thing: Patriarchal order. No matter your situation, your health, your needs, or your aspirations, if you are a woman, you stay in your place, follow the rules and let men make the decisions. At least we know Romney is consistent in one area.

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