The 2012 presidential race detoured Thursday into an argument you might have thought was long settled -- that most stay-at-home moms work hard to raise their children and maintain a household.
Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen lit a political fuse the night before when she ridiculed Ann Romney, who is the mother of five and wife of the GOP's presumptive nominee, as someone who "never worked a day in her life."
It wasn't long before rhetorical firecrackers began popping.
Ann Romney responded by signing up on the social-media site Twitter to deliver her first tweet: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."
President Barack Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, said in a tweet that Rosen was "wrong" and should apologize. Conservative talk-radio denounced the Democrats' "war on motherhood."
Rosen on Thursday tried to put out the flames by apologizing for what she called "poorly chosen" words -- "to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended," she said in a written statement.
Obama himself took up damage control later in the day. "There is no tougher job than being a mom," he told a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, TV station.
"I don't have a lot of patience for commentary about the spouses of political candidates," he added. "My general view is those of us who are in the public life, we're fair game. Our families are civilians."
Tricia Carter of Kansas City was annoyed but not surprised: "It's the mommy wars," gone political.
A married, stay-at-home mother of two young children in the Waldo area, "I've been on both sides" of the cultural divide between moms (and a swelling number of dads) who earn money outside the home and those who don't, Carter said. She worked in corporate law after her son was born and chose to stay home when a daughter came along.
"Being a stay-at-home mom is the hardest job I've ever been lucky enough to have," she said. "I also know mothers who are staying home because daycare is so expensive, it doesn't make sense to work.
"The whole conversation just irritates me. ... It's unfair that people feel they have to justify one side or the other. If parents want to work, if they need to work, they work."
That women were in the middle of the partisan point-scoring is something to expect in the months leading to November, election watchers say.
While some polling shows women voters widely favoring Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, the gap narrows significantly among women who are white, married and politically independent.
"I think they're going to be a contested group throughout the election," said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.
Rosen runs a political consulting firm and made the "never worked" remark as a paid analyst on CNN. On Thursday, she said she was trying to respond to Mitt Romney's "poor record on the plight of women's financial struggles...
"Let's declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance."
Fine, countered Rae Lynne Chornenky, who heads the National Federation of Republican Women.
"Let's talk about the economy and all the jobs that women don't have," she said.
Putting aside the political scorecard, experts said the debate illuminates some pertinent social issues about how Americans regard "working" versus raising kids full time and keeping a home in order.
"The interesting thing about this latest salvo in the campaign wars is that it is bringing more attention to the shocking lack of attention that economists pay to the value of unpaid work in the home," said Nancy Folbre, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts.
Women who work in the home, Folbre said, are engaged in activities that are necessary and would be paid for if someone else had to provide them. That includes cooking, cleaning, child care and transportation.
It turns out that men and women spend the same number of average hours working -- paid or unpaid -- about 50 hours a week for each gender. But according to a Labor Department time use survey, women do more unpaid household work and men do more paid work, a gender difference of about 10 hours a week in each case.
Unpaid household work accounts for about 25 percent of women's total work time, compared to about 15 percent of men's.
Folbre added: "It's crazy" that more effort isn't devoted to understanding what a homemaker's job is worth.
Laura McKnight, a mother of five, who recently resigned as executive director of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to build her own business, said the firestorm of discussion ties into a new reality:
"Where, exactly, is the workplace? Home is the workplace for many, whether a 'stay-at-home mom' or not," she said.
"If you break down the services that you'd have to pay for if you didn't do it, that in itself validates that it's work," McKnight said.
At Kansas City's Central Exchange, an organization devoted to the professional advancement of women, president Ellen D'Amato said she is careful to ask, "Do you work outside the home?" Never just, "Do you work?"
The president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O'Neill, said that she, too, specifies "outside the home" when asking parents about their work status.
"Suppose we roll back the tape. If Rosen had just said, 'Ann Romney has never worked outside the house a day in her life,' there's no argument," O'Neill said.
It would still be a personal attack on a spouse, but millions of stay-at-home parents wouldn't be dragged into the fight.
"This is really a teachable moment" about our clumsy use of the word "work," O'Neill said.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat running for re-election, joined the chorus criticizing Rosen and said partisans need to be mindful of whom they attack in the heat of political battle.
"I'm offended that anyone would devalue the incredibly hard and rewarding work that mothers do at home," said McCaskill, the product of a stay-at-home mother. "We must respect every woman's choices, while understanding many working moms don't have a choice...
"Every family in America operates under their own unique circumstances and we need to get back to a place in our political discourse where we aren't attacking people because of their families."
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