In an article printed a few months prior to the 2008 election, Washington Post journalist Mary C. Curtis asked why there had been so much silence from feminists when it came to Michelle Obama. At the time, the then-aspiring-First Lady was under fire for her commentary about race in her senior college thesis and her ‘angry Black woman’ persona. Curtis cited that the relative silence of typically outspoken defenders of women when it came to Mrs. Obama was, sadly, part for the course when it comes to Black women and non-Black feminists:
“I’ve long been frustrated, as a black woman and a feminist, with our national conversation. I didn’t hear the cause speaking up for women of color or for women who have always worked in blue-collar or service jobs…The woman who employed my educated mother to clean her house never quite saw her as a sister in the struggle for equality.”
While the First Lady’s education and social status remove her from the class issue, her many accomplishments have not been enough for many feminists to feel that she is a figure worth fighting for. The White House campaign to destroy Mrs. O’s ‘angry’ reputation was a veritable success; however, she is lauded more for her achievement as a rising fashion icon than she is praised for the career she had prior to the election or the work she has done since her husband took office. That’s not to say that her aesthetic doesn’t have power all its own; however, it seems that the focus First Lady’s dresses and cardigans is designed to prevent her from being threatening. Does she still shake up the image of Black women that we traditionally see in the media? Absolutely, but now it’s in a ‘Claire Huxtable sort of way’.
Recently, drug-addled conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh (who hasn’t been svelte at any point in my memory bank) blasted the First Lady for pushing a healthy lifestyle agenda, yet failing to “project the image of the women you might see on the Sports Illustrated cover”. It was an absurd, ironic and mean-spirited criticism, not unlike the comments of politician-turned-reality TV star Sarah Palin, who also blasted Mrs. Obama’s attempts to get Americans to make wiser food choices. And while these two public figures are typically disregarded by most Liberals and even by many conservatives, there is still a curious silence that surrounds talk about President Obama’s better half.
Black folks (well, primarily Black women, to be fair) have been fiercely protective of our first First Lady, be they feminist identified and otherwise. It isn’t that Mrs. Obama requires the co-sign or the defense of feminists to be legitimized or safe; but it’s mind boggling that a woman who embodies so much of what contemporary feminism has advocated for (having had the opportunity to have a superior educational and professional career and also, finding a loving partner and being free to raise children in a safe environment on her own terms) doesn’t seem to have captivated much attention from them some three years after being thrust into the national spotlight.
Former First Lady turned Presidential candidate turned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obviously had a lengthy political agenda; it wasn’t merely her disinterest in being a ‘cookie baking’ First Spouse or her lack of focus on wardrobe that made her a feminist darling. Like Mrs. Obama, she was brilliant, educated and accomplished outside of her marriage. Clinton was also fiercely guarded by the likes of Gloria Steinem and other well known women’s rights advocates, throughout her time in the White House, on through her own presidential bid. Michelle? Not so much.
While the current First Lady has charmed and inspired people of both sexes across the globe and, as Nadra Kareem pointed out in a 2008 piece for The Root, “doesn’t need a white patriarch, or, in this case, matriarch, to rescue her”, the relative silence surrounding the international sensation that is this beautiful, Black woman is still somewhat confounding. Or is it? Should we be used to the lack of ability or willingness of White women, feminist ones at that, to connect with Black women in a way that allows them to see our interests as shared?