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.