Michelle Obama As Model and Role Model

I’ve been holding off on sharing my thoughts on Michelle Obama, not because I don’t think she is an unbelievable woman but because everyone from Feministing to Jezebel to Salon has noted how a woman with degrees from Princeton and Harvard, a successful career, two beautiful daughters and an accomplished husband is now talking a lot about… fashion?  And cooking?

In a year when women made huge leaps forward (even Sarah Palin, I’m embarrassed to say), why has Michelle Obama’s role as first lady been reduced to domestic concerns about schools, redecorating the White House, fashion, and hosting parties?  I thought that the National Post‘s story summed it up well and it is worth quoting at length (thanks to MicheleObamaWatch for the link):

The battle to conform to wifely expectations was previously fought by Hillary Clinton, a woman who recently made a hell-bent run for the exact same job her husband held in the years that she was forced to choke on her health plan and write books about the White House cat. (So let’s not pretend that the role of stifled icon might not take some independent women on a wacky psychological ride.)

But Michelle is in an even tighter bind, in part because of the legacy left her by Hillary and her detractors. Powerful couples must now tread as far as possible from the “two for one” talk, lest the female half get smacked with a nutcracker.

Like the women at Michelle Obama Watch, I have a couple of problems with this argument.  Mostly, of course there is the notion that women can’t be mothers AND be successful or that choosing to mother and/or follow your husband while he makes history is somehow less than a “successful” choice.  Feminism has been working for years to validate the choices women make, as long as women are making them– not their fathers, husbands, brothers etc.  Also, I worry that this idea that powerful women can’t be in the White House means that we’re reinscribing the idea that ANY woman can’t be a powerful force in the White House– even as a president, someday.  Even Hillary Clinton couldn’t escape the “her spouse will be too powerful” argument.  I don’t like the idea that the most powerful person the world can’t/shouldn’t have a spouse that challenges him/her or that has opinions of her/his own.

So much of my own hesitation about the way that the media has talked about the Obama’s comes from the idea that only one barrier can be broken at once.  Yes, maybe a black first family AND a strong, independent woman in the White House might be a lot for some Americans to swallow, it also seems like they embody the modern American family– i.e. they both work AND raise a family AND are civic minded.  How many families couldn’t relate to a family where both parents work and worry about their kids?  Isn’t that the message we’d want to send to our daughters?

I’d like to point you to this list of “5 Reasons All Women should Love Michelle Obama” over at Sirens Magazine.  Their 4th point eloquently sums up what I’ve been stuttering out:

And as far as we’re concerned, these are the kinds of arguments that kill feminism, which should be about celebrating women’s progress. It’s not a race to see who can be the toughest gal in the old-boy’s club without regard to the very-real juggling act all women—especially mothers—must perform. Michelle’s dedication to her husband is admirable (can we please stop perpetuating the stereotype that feminists hate men?); her responsibility as a mother essential (see #1); and as for her taking a “back seat,” we’re not convinced… She’s an extremely strong influence on her husband. She held a Harvard Law degree before he did. She mentored him when he joined Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, and she encouraged him to be a community organizer. Barack Obama listens when Michelle Obama speaks…

I am so torn about all of this because, of course, I love that fashion magazines are going to put a woman with a Princeton degree on their cover but I hate that the story isn’t going to be about her accomplishments and what she’s doing to make lives better as First Lady but will be about her husband’s campaign, her husband’s achievements, and how she’s (for lack of a better phrase) ridden his coat-tails into history.  Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Vogue will do it much better but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Michelle Obama managed to make the role First Lady about a lot more than hosting teas for visiting personages and more about the kind of social reform that we’ve all been hoping for?  Early, early in the pre-primary season (like, June or July 2007?) I heard Michelle Obama on NPR in Los Angeles talking about what she’d like to do as first lady– see increased child care or, at least, support for working families and I have to say… yes she can do that, I’ll support her.

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1 Comment

Filed under Feminism, Sexism and Media

One response to “Michelle Obama As Model and Role Model

  1. Lyndsi

    I mostly agree with this. But I also think that Laura Bush hasn’t been given enough credit for her work around the world, mostly because there’s a lack of media coverage. Yes, she has an amazing cookie recipe (http://www.christmas-cookies.com/recipes/recipe524.laura-bushs-cowboy-cookies.html), but she also has the Laura Bush foundation which just recently gave more than $1 million in grants to school libraries (reading quintessential literature is important, as we grad students know). She also sponsored Aids programs in Haiti (another little talked about fact is how much President Bush has contributed to efforts to prevent Aids in Africa) as along with other charitable efforts around the world.

    So my point is, this stereotype that First Ladies (besides Hillary Clinton) only host tea parties and great world leaders is not true in the slightest. But no one talks about what the First Lady is up to. And it’s also kind of hard to work while your husband is president.

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