It does my heart good to see women of all races embrace Michelle Obama. It is too rare indeed for a brown-skinned woman, a descendant of slaves, a product of Chicago’s South Side to be lauded on an international stage. Considering the heavy burden of stereotype still faced by black women, I cheer a little each time the First Lady gets some shine for her strength and smarts. But I note that in their eagerness to identify with Obama and make her emblematic of modern woman, some mainstream feminists unwittingly erase a key part of her identity–her blackness.–and deny the experiences and histories of many African American women in the process.
In her much-talked-about speech, last Wednesday, at the Democratic National Convention, Obama said her most important role is “mom-in-chief.” In analysis, this pronouncement along with the fact that Obama declined to talk about her own impressive career, was found disappointing by many in the white feminist chattering class.
Maybe that is why it was so jarring to hear again last night. So much about the context has changed — the Republicans are being accused of launching a “war on women”; the word “mom” is being used as shorthand for a sweet lady who knows her place; Michelle Obama has spent four years showing us that she is a mother, yes, but also a force of nature. All this makes the phrase feels loaded and out of place.
Jessica Valenti tweeted: “I long for the day when powerful women don’t need to assure Americans that they’re moms above all else.”
Slate’s Hanna Rosin tweeted: “ok “mom in chief” is not where i thought that sentence was headed. it was so soaring just before that.” Rosin went on to voice her discomfort with the phrase and Obama’s speech that seemed to put her own accomplishments on the back burner during Slate’s “Double X Gabfest,” where she was joined by Noreen Malone, who wrote about Obama’s speech for The New Republic:
It’s a true and universally resonant sentiment. After all, Mrs. Obama is far more in the thick of raising kids than is Mrs. Romney. But I can’t help thinking of the martial roots of that “-in-chief” designation: the “mommy wars” that have been battled in the press over the last decades take as their baseline assumption that working moms and stay-at-home moms see their choices as in opposition. Generals Ann and Michelle want to broker a peace—one that’s awfully helpful politically; both need all the women—but it’s a little depressing that both see fit to do so by whitewashing out their own experiences for the sake of bland universality. After all, way back in 1996, even after taking a beating in the press for being a little too careerist, Hillary Clinton didn’t shy away from making a direct plea on behalf of working parents, and
talking about how that experience informed her husband’s platform.
Rosin wasn’t the only Slate writer unimpressed by Michelle Obama’s “mom-in-chief” line. In an article on Slate’s XX women’s blog, Libby Copeland ponders: “Why Are Presidential Candidates’ Wives All theSame?”
The would-be first lady is self-sacrificing, and for years she has managed to somehow keep a household running with her husband off in Washington or wherever, and even though it’s nearly impossible, she doesn’t complain too much. The candidate’s job, in turn, is to give her all the credit for raising the kids and opening the mail, and occasionally to say (as Mitt did in his convention speech) that her job was even harder than his. (“She was heroic,” Mitt said of Ann. “Cindy will get her reward in heaven,” John McCain said in 2007.) Perhaps, like Michelle Obama, she complained a little, leaving Post-it reminders for himto pick his underwear up off the floor. But ultimately, she bravely goes along with his ambitious schemes.
Copeland’s analysis of what the public will accept from political wives has merit, but it is impossible for Michelle Obama to occupy the same space in this discussion as her forebears. She is a black woman. While white women have historically been thought, by default, to be possessed of ideal femininity, (sexistly) defined as demure, sacrificing, quietly strong, beautiful and maternal. Black women have not. The picture of black woman as Sapphire; welfare queen; baby mama; ball-buster; unmarriageable harpy who is too black, too fat and too nappy can be seen lurking behind much of the right’s–and some of the left’s–criticism of Michelle Obama. (Not only that, but Sapphire qualities are already being thrust upon the Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha, who the media is fond of imbuing with a sort of two-snaps-up-in-a-circle sassiness.)
White feminists who acknowledge Obama’s blackness, and the stereotypes attached to it, believe her “momification” is a shrewdly calculated answer to attacks on her as “Stokely Carmichael in a dress.” In her article, Malone endorses a similar analysis by Rebecca Traister in Salon. It is as if, even these smart women cannot believe that, alongside strong, black womanhood, Michelle Obama might have a nurturing, maternal side that is not politically manufactured but a part of who she is.
Black women in the public eye, including Michelle Obama, may not see the need to distance themselves from traditional roles, as Hillary Clinton once did, famously saying, “I am not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man.” and “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Cooking-baking, devoted wife and mother has never been a stereotype about us.
Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter. Further, media overexposure of these women bolsters the perception of them as self-absorbed brewers of tempests in teapots.
Philyaw writes that historically, black women have rarely had the privilege to choose motherhood over career. Black women have always worked outside of the home–have almost always had to–even when society forbade “good” white women from leaving their pedestals. We have ploughed the fields and raised other folks babies, as well as our own. And as for many black women of my generation–women whose parents kicked down a host of racial barriers during the Civil Rights era and worked tirelessly to provide opportunity for their children–many of us were raised to do our family (and our race) proud through scholastic and professional achievement more than marriage and children. (I am glad of that, by the way.)
Of course, black mothers are not endless founts of strength. Nor do we live charmed, guilt-free lives. Some black at-home mothers are asked by family and friends to justify the decision to “waste” their educations. Professional black mothers may have to forego material comforts and greater financial security in exchange for more flexibility and time at home with their kids. But all this struggling and striving happens in the context of our history. If a black mother’s household income is such that she can afford to stay at home with her kids or opt to pursue a career full-time instead—either way, we’ve arrived at a profound historical moment. Either way, she is living a life her foremothers could only dream about.
In contrast to some of the mainstream feminist analysis of Michelle Obama and her role in the White House, I have heard from many black women, including feminist ones, who are delighted to see an African American woman publicly celebrated in ways that we commonly are not. Michelle Obama is–refreshingly for many of us–lauded for being nurturing, beautiful and stylish as well as whip smart, athletic and strong. And we imagine that Obama has the strength to make her needs known and that if she has, for now, chosen motherhood, that it is the role she wants. She is a black woman free to make that choice. These things are revolutionary for black women, even if some white women see business as usual.
Feminists who wish that Obama would strike a blow for feminism and against stereotyped roles of women, too easily forget that all women are not burdened by the same stereotypes. The way sexism visits white women and women of color, including black women, is similar in its devastation but often unique in its practice.