Michelle Obama

Once again, there is a conversation in the mainstream press about whether Michelle Obama is feminist enough.  Her platform is being debated, as well as her decision to identify as “Mom-in-Chief.”  This conversation really brings to fore the breach between White feminists and many Black women.  Feminism has a long history of racism and these issues have yet to be settled.  Black women are told that we should privilege gender over and above any other marginalization that we must also negotiate, while many White feminists continue to ignore that Black women have often had very different organizing goals.  Michelle Obama isn’t just the First Lady of the United States; she is the first Black First Lady and over and above her educational and professional accomplishments, Mrs. Obama represents a view of black womanhood that is often eschewed by the media.

When Michelle Obama said, “For the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country,” the media had a field day, and she was quickly benched by President Obama’s election campaign.  As much as feminists may want a more vocal and assertive First Lady, I cannot help but wonder what they would do if they actually got their wish. Are they even capable of understanding that being an educated wife and mother under the gaze of a 24-hour news media is indeed political for a Black woman?

The question feminists should be asking isn’t whether or not Michelle Obama is feminist enough, but why the role of the First Lady is so limited. First Ladies are expected to take a peripheral role in government and support initiatives which are considered safe and do not challenge their husband’s policy directives.  She is meant to comfort Middle America while appearing as arm candy for the President.  Any First Lady who has sought to step even marginally outside of this role has been pilloried by the press.

Many liberal feminists have deified Hillary Clinton as the feminist political representative. Though Hillary Clinton was not the first woman to run for president, no other woman has come as close to winning their party’s nomination for president. Clinton was the first to have her own office in the West Wing and she even led former President Clinton’s failed bid at healthcare reform.  Bill and Hillary made it clear that by electing him, the American people were getting “two for the price of one,” yet Hillary Clinton was seen as interfering in government business, even though her education and work history clearly made her labour valuable to the American public.  Hillary was repeatedly and resoundingly skewered by the right-wing press. For many, Hillary was simply a woman who didn’t know her place.   It has become common practice to claim that constant public attacks have no effect on their target, but the truth of the matter is, one would have to be an automaton not to have an emotional response to repeated attacks based solely in one’s marginalisation. There absolutely was a personal cost to the role that Hillary played in the Clinton administration.

Before Michelle Obama opens her mouth to say a single word, her identity as a black woman fills far too many with a racist rage.  While some would argue that Mrs. Obama’s platform is reductive to women because she heavily couches her labour in rhetoric about motherhood, few are willing to recognize that the First Lady is working to combat deeply racist stereotypes, which have historically constructed black women as licentious welfare queens.  As feminists are wont to say, the personal is political, and no one represents that better than Michelle Obama.

In Michelle Obama, the populace has the most educated First Lady in American history, but not only is she constrained by her race, but by the limited roles that Americans expect the First Lady to play in government.  Already, the American public gains immensely from Michelle Obama’s intelligence, work experience and charm, and they do so without spending a dollar to compensate her for her time and energy.  The perks of being First Lady do not amount to a salary, and furthermore, no professional person would settle for perks in lieu of an actual salary.  While Hillary may have been seen as a harpy, there can be no doubt that Obama would be painted as an uppity angry black woman should she even attempt to mirror Hillary’s work in the West Wing.  How much character assassination and free labour would these upset feminists have Michelle Obama deal with just so that she can perform their construction of what a working, educated, Black woman should look like?

The ability to choose is supposedly essential to feminist discourse and yet Michelle Obama’s choices are constantly up for debate.  No one bothers to ask why she even owes the government or the people of the United States anything and yet she exists in a sphere in which expectations and criticism are common place. The ability to choose should leave room for women to prioritize motherhood without being attacked, just as it should leave room for women who choose to focus on their careers without getting married or having kids.  There is always going to be someone one who is going to unsatisfied by the job that Michelle Obama is doing, but she is not a public official, nor has she taken any oath to serve the people and though she is leading a very public life, Mrs. Obama is still a private citizen. Even more importantly, advocacy is hard work and each person has a right to choose how they negotiate a marginalization that affects them, because it is the individual who will bear the brunt of the consequences.

Until the work of First Lady is a paid position and is tasked with duties beyond the frivolous, no effort on the part of any woman is going to bring about significant change.  The position of First Lady is devalued because it is work performed by women, and because it is unpaid. By virtue of our patriarchal culture, the work of the First Lady is deemed to be nurturing work, which all women perform, though to a lesser extent which supports the public sphere. The role of the First Lady isn’t devalued because Michelle Obama isn’t feminist enough, but because our entire economic structure uses sexism to exploit women’s labour. By simply continuing to be a positive role model as a wife and a mother, Michelle Obama is doing wonders for Black women and girls across the globe. It may not be what mainstream feminists have in mind, but choice is about having the freedom to chart our own path in life.

  • http://gravatar.com/lifeandstylesoftheyoungandrestless Joy Killington

    People who actually understand feminism don’t question this. It’s the ignorant “Feminists only care about White people! therefore f*** feminists!” crowd who insist on calling everything feminist. I’m a Black feminist and I have not heard any other feminist question Michelle Obama’s feminist credentials– but I have heard to tons of non-feminists do it. Sit down.

  • Job

    This is a dumb debate. The First Lady has no defined role in government. She simply happens to be married to the president. Hillary Clinton was rightfully hammered for meddling politically because the First Lady is not an elected official nor is she subject to the approval of Congress. Since her role is undefined Michelle Obama can do whatever she wants including take long naps and watch soap operas all day long. If she wants to be a politician then she can run for office.

  • Smilez_920

    First they complained about Obama calling his daughters ” beautiful” now their mad Michelle ( who has spent most of her adult life working , educating herself and others , holding a top tier position at a law firm) decideds that she wants to be mom and Cheif.

    These are the women that for feminism a bad name. I though part of the feminism movement was ” women having the freedom to be who they want to be how they want to be it”.

    Michele believe in equal rights for women. Just because she’s not Hilary doesn’t mean she isn’t part of the fight. Some of these white feminist really have no idea what their talking about , just talking out the side of their mouths.

  • Yb
  • Yb

    I though part of the feminism movement was ” women having the freedom to be who they want to be how they want to be it”.

    Ding, ding, ding. And that’s exactly it. Many modern day feminists forgot what their predecessor fought for and feel all women should express their womanhood as mainstream feminists see fit.

    “Some of these white feminist really have no idea what their talking about , just talking out the side of their mouths.”

    Exactly, some of them have personal issue with Michelle Obama, and use her “lack of feminism” to find a way to critique her.

  • ASK_ME

    @YB

    When it comes to this individual I prefer this gif…

    http://d22zlbw5ff7yk5.cloudfront.net/images/cm-43547-650ebf275c0746.gif

  • Yb

    @Ask_Me

    I find this one to be a classic.

    http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mb12rhGxc31rzz3r3o1_400.gif

  • Julie

    Can we stop paying attention to whatever nonsense white people, er, the mainstream spews? Don’t care what they think.

  • Guest1234

    Oh, no? Perhaps you should check out this article.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/feminists-split-by-michelle-obamas-work-as-first-lady/2013/01/18/be3d636e-5e5e-11e2-9940-6fc488f3fecd_story.html

    Here are a couple of gems from the feminists interviewed:

    “In 2008, when Obama announced her intention to be “mom-in-chief,” many feminists decried her decision to give up her career and said she had been victimized by her husband’s choices. She was regarded as one of the women feminist Linda Hirshman described as “letting down the team.”

    “Why does mom-in-chief have to be the most important thing this strong, vibrant woman tells us about herself as she flexes the strange but considerable power of the office of first lady?” Emily Bazelon asked on Slate.com.”

    Just because you haven’t heard it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Maybe you should do a bit of reading before you demand somebody ELSE sit down.

    Since I’ve done MY reading, allow me to demand that YOU have a seat. Thank you.

  • Kam

    I was wondering why the article was going completely over this person’s head. Then I scrolled up and read the screenname.

  • T

    When it comes to our First Lady, society is scrambling as where to categorize her. Therefore, society will pull from this area and that area to scrutinize her just like every other black woman. Of course she will receive more of the criticism b/c she is the FLOTUS. She cannot eat a hamburger without her dedication to a healthier lifestyle being questioned. How she dress was criticized – she shouldn’t wear her arms out. Absolutely being proud of whom she is, and strong –then she is considered as an angry black woman. I particularly loved this statement:

    “While Hillary may have been seen as a harpy, there can be no doubt that Obama would be painted as an uppity angry black woman should she even attempt to mirror Hillary’s work in the West Wing.” Not only that, the entire role of the First Lady would be revisited. FLOTUS does have a choice both ways to remain MOM-in –chief or continue to take on a more political role. Clearly, that fact is undisputable. Society is searching because once again, it is nothing really to question. It is her choice.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    This!

  • useless black middle class

    If they’re citing Hilary children bomber Clinton and Michelle corporate shill Obama as feminist icons then feminism has lost the last remnant of the credibility it might have had left over from the days when it made some contribution to the anti-capitalist critique of the white male power structure.

    That feminism was so easily and readily co-opted into the existing power structure shows that it was always only oriented towards getting a seat at the “big” white male table and was NEVER about creating an egalitarian society.

    Indeed that so called feminists don’t challenge the concept of a “!st lady”, whose position & privilege comes by way of marriage to the “1st Man”, shows their commitment to traditional white supremacist family values, and an unequal social order characterized by status & privilege for the few and disempowerment and exploitation for the majority.

    But don’t confuse my abiding hatred of feminism as coming from the same place as Perspective’s up there. Males like him hate feminism because it opened up hypergamy opportunities to a wider pool of parasitical women.

    More women are able to compete for the most privileged males thanks to feminism. However, beta males like Perspective were the first casualties of feminism due to their not being high enough in the male food chain to benefit from women’s sexual “liberation”. (read – new age of strings sex for wealthy WHITES males)

    They feel left out of the “sexual revolution” (read – new age of strings sex for wealthy WHITES males) and denied even the expectation of at least being able to exercise “patriarchal power” by having control over an individual woman – because they are being rejected by women who previously would have felt compelled to settle for their lame selves in marriage.

    If he had the brains to acquire some understanding of that which he speaks he’d know that all he need do to get all the female submission he craves is earn an extra dollar or two on top of his minimum wage, and he’ll have his pick of bougie (read got job – got GED) UBMC women.

    Feminism is all about “glass ceilings” ie securing more positions of power and prestige in the top echelons of the white supremacist power structure for already privileged women – and about hatred and persecution of poor males – who incidentally, this system fears most. It is the female branch of white supremacy and includes in its membership women of all races/colors and of all politically reactionary stripes. Thus black feminist = black white supremacist.

    Someone must think we can’t “peep game” around here.

    Feminism is sh*tand those who called themselves feminists will be among the first victims of the revolutionary storm that’s a comin.

  • mEE

    no one voted for Michelle Obama. she is not REQUIRED to do anything. we voted for her husband. so if she wants to sit in the White House and garden all day that’s her prerogative. she doesn’t owe us anything.

    can’t the fact that this Black woman made it to Princeton, then Harvard, then became a community activist, then a dean at a university, all while raising two children and supporting her husband through a senatorship and presidency be enough?? no seriously what else do they want her to do? turn water into wine?

  • Wanda

    The First Lady is doing a magnificent job balancing family life and the needs of her most important role as a leader.

  • Perspective

    “her most important role as a leader.”

    eyes roll

    You women really think your taking over huh?

  • Mademoiselle

    Excuse my ignorance, but is Michelle the one calling herself a feminist, or are a bunch of people assuming that because she’s a woman who pursued a career she must consider herself a feminist?

Latest Stories

Watch: ‘Black People Mate’ a Parody About the Ridiculous Stats on Black Women & Dating

by

University President Under Fire for Wanting to Make School Less White In the Future

by

Taraji P. Henson Says European Men Are Less ‘Bitter’ and ‘Jaded’ Than American Men

by

Style Inspiration: Casual Work Outfits

by
More in feminism, michelle obama, opinion
Starter Wives
5 Observations About Starter Wives Confidential

Stopping Rape Starts At Home: How Not to Raise a Rapist
Close