As the White House scrambled Thursday to prevent "mommy wars" damage done by a Democratic advisor, one expert cautioned that politicians need to learn to communicate with women voters, who factor strongly in this presidential election.
"Most of the attention paid to them has been superficial, rather than substantive," Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University professor specializing in how women affect politics, said as Twitter chatter carried on the argument of whether a stay-at-home mother works as hard as a career woman.
Since 1980, more women have voted in presidential elections than men, said Sara Grove, another expert on women voters at Shippensburg University.
Democratic leaders backed away from consultant Hilary Rosen for disparaging Ann Romney, wife of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, in a CNN interview as someone who "actually never worked a day in her life." Bowing to pressure midday, Rosen issued a statement of apology acknowledging "poorly chosen" words.
President Obama told an Iowa television station that families are off limits in campaigns.
"I don't have a lot of patience for commentary about the spouses of political candidates," Obama said. "Those of us who are in the public life, we're fair game. Our families are civilians."
Ann Romney in January told the Tribune-Review that raising five boys as a homemaker while her husband pursued his business and political careers was "a tough job."
"It is a tough job. There was nothing easy about it and those boys were always getting into some sort of mischief," she said in the interview with son Tag, daughter-in-law Jennifer, three grandchildren and her husband. "Having said that, I wouldn`t have changed one moment of it. It was remarkable."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its databook Women in the Labor Force, counted 32.6 million women with children under age 18 in March 2010, the latest statistics available. About 71 percent were either employed (65 percent) or actively looking for work (6 percent) and the remaining 29 percent were not in the labor force.
Sean Trende, a political analyst for Real Clear Politics, said Gallup polling finds women care more about health care, gas prices and unemployment than they do about issues such as government policies on birth control. Recent polls show Obama leading Romney among registered women voters, though Obama's job approval rating from women has fallen from 70 percent when he took office to 49 percent, Trende said.
"Politicians don't communicate well with woman voters," said Wilson. "They focus on trigger issues, like birth control or women not being allowed into men-only clubs. We are much more complicated than that. ... They should be talking about the things (women) care about, like getting food on the table, health care and if they have children, keeping them safe."
White House press secretary Jay Carney last week told reporters that Obama believes women should be admitted to the all-male Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters tournament.
Pelted yesterday with questions about Rosen, who the Romney campaign said has visited the White House 35 times, Carney said: "I think we can all agree, Democrats and Republicans, that raising children is an extremely difficult job."
Rosen suggested Wednesday night that Ann Romney is no economic expert because she did not have to work to pay bills and should not be her millionaire husband's surrogate on women and the economy. "She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of women in this country are facing," Rosen said.
Her comments lit up social media sites and talk shows.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod tweeted that her attack was "inappropriate and offensive." First Lady Michelle Obama, a working mother of two, jumped in with this tweet: "Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected."
The Democratic National Committee's executive director, Patrick Gaspard, told MSNBC that Rosen is not a paid advisor to the DNC or the Obama campaign.
"What she said was absolutely out of bounds. Ann Romney is someone who obviously has worked hard to raise five good boys, and she's made some tough choices in her life, I'm certain," he said.
Rosen prompted Ann Romney to open a Twitter account to counter her, saying she chose to stay home and "believe me it was hard work."
"I am raising children, too," Rosen tweeted. "But most young American women HAVE to BOTH earn a living AND raise children. You know that don't u?"
Choosing to stay home rather than work outside the home while raising children isn't a partisan decision or an economic one, said Wilson. Plenty of mothers with varying incomes decide to stay home, despite potential economic hardship or career setbacks, she said.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told the Trib in a 2010 interview that her job as a stay-at-home mom was the best education she got for her role as then-House speaker.
"Never underestimate what happens in a home," Pelosi said. "All the discipline, diplomacy, sense of organization -- I learned it all there."
Carney asked reporters to "focus on what the issue here is -- when it comes to what this administration has done for women, it begins with the president's signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act." The law, the first legislation Obama signed, was designed to make it easier for women to challenge pay inequality.
Yet, recently released financial records show the White House practices unequal pay for its female employees, said Andrew Stiles of the online newspaper Free Beacon.
Stiles cited a 2011 annual report on White House staff showing females earned a median salary of $60,000, about 18 percent less than the $71,000 median for males, though he noted that his calculations for each gender "required some assumptions to be made based on the employee names."
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