All Hail the Mom-in-Chief: Michelle Obama, Feminist Icon
The reviews are in. Both liberal and conservative commentators agree: Michelle Obama gave a barnburner of a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. She was pitch perfect: sincere and persuasive. And she looked great in her custom made Tracy Reese dress and J.Crew pumps. She earned high marks for performance and presentation. As I digest the speech content today and bask in the warm glow of the Obama’s increasingly solid reelection prospects, there is a thought that rests uncomfortably in my mind as I consider in the figure of Michelle Obama. As a good feminist, can I truly applaud a woman who subverts her own personal prowess in favor of a more palatable “aww shucks, I am a mom” public personality?
A partial explanation of Michelle Obama’s careful construction of her role as first lady rests with the public image that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. According to her most strident critics, she was the fist bumping, angry, and radical black woman who did not love America. Remember The New Yorker cover on July 21, 2008? It was unfunny because it did not critique and merely replicated the extreme right wing caricature of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as gun toting black revolutionary. I always have experienced a type of cognitive dissonance with this particular stereotype because my favorite people in this world are fist bumping, righteously angry black women (on my best days, moreover, I count myself as a member of that demographic). There is a long and proud history of strong black women: from Ida B Wells-Barnett who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the turn of the century, Fanny Lou Hamer who was a activist during the civil rights movement, to Angela Davis who is a black nationalist and academic. These women’s anger and activism called America to task about the deep structural inequalities and ultimately led us to this day. We have made incredible progress due to the known and unknown work of women and men of all races. Yet there are still more to battles to fight for true and lasting equality. This “anger,” when directed toward the goal of civil rights, has been a necessary part of the American story.
Yet both Barack and Michelle Obama realize that they can be black, but black in a palatable sense for mainstream consumption. This is a reality that Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed in his excellent piece, “Fear of a Black President.” This is a politically pragmatic and utterly defensible stance. As Michelle Obama stated last night, “Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it…and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.” In order for them to rise to their positions as president and first lady, they had to make specific set of racial compromises. In turn, that allowed for the successes of Obama’s first term: healthcare, equal pay for women, gay people openly serving in the military, the withdrawal of troops in Iraq, saving the auto industry, bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, and preventing the collapse of the American economy.
This brings us back to the mom-in-chief label. Does she sell herself short? To the preceding question, I must reply with a resounding “no.” The workplace versus domestic sphere is a dichotomy that most feminist of my generation have rejected as a false one. Stay at home moms do real work. Many moms work inside and outside of the home. As the second child of five, I personally witnessed the contribution of my mom who stayed at home until her last child was in middle school. The work of any parent is time-intensive and never-ending. I observed the incredible work my mother who is a life partner, life coach, stylist, personal chef, nutritionist, event planner and travel agent for our family. The long list of jobs that are embedded in the role of a mother still does not do justice to a woman’s work, which has been historically devalued because it has been uncompensated.
Michelle Obama’s speech almost perfectly encapsulates her personae as first lady. There is an extensive body of educational research that supports her effort to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy eating habits through the Let’s Move! initiative. The office of first lady is a deeply small “c” conservative institution. In other words, my radical imaginings and wishes may be correctly apply to those women who are outside of the White House. As a professor, I am free in a way that Michelle Obama is not. She has, nonetheless, crafted a place in history that is subtle and indelible: a black woman who is a wife and mother who is smart, stylish, and personally invested in the successful presidency and reelection of Barack Obama.