Oh, For Eff’s Sake, Michelle Obama Is Not A “Feminist’s Nightmare”

One of the most intriguing characters on “Scandal” is First Lady Mellie Grant. She’s not just a WASP sent from Central Casting, or a put-upon wife of a philanderer. Mellie gave up her Yale and Harvard-bred ambitions for the full-time job of photo ops and glad-handing as the First Lady. Just like Lucy Ricardo always wanted husband Ricky to just give her one opportunity to be in a show, Mellie Grant wants to influence policy and make big moves wherever she can. At every turn, she is stopped, often angrily, by her husband the President and his apoplectic Chief Of Staff. Both men remind her, every episode it seems, that the First Lady is supposed to be pretty sidekick, not a policy wonk.  In one episode, Mellie is witheringly informed her job is to be “ornamental.”

Watching Mellie Grant on “Scandal” has made me look at Michelle Obama differently for sure. It’s not hard to imagine she, too, feels a bit trapped in a golden cage. We don’t exactly know whether Michelle Obama feels like her intellect is being wasted, but we do know from Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas, a portrait of the Obama marriage, that Barack’s high-level staff has bristled in the past at Michelle’s involvement. But  also we know that Michelle dedicated her first year as First Lady to acclimating her two children to their new home and school and has spent many years since promoting healthy eating and exercise. All this has been summed up by Michelle Cottle, a Daily Beast scribe in a piece for Politico Magazine, as a feminist failure.

Writes Cottle:

Enough already with the pining for a Michelle Obama who simply doesn’t exist. The woman is not going to morph into an edgier, more activist first lady. The 2012 election did not set her free. Even now, with her husband waddling toward lame duck territory, she is not going to let loose suddenly with some straight talk about abortion rights or Obamacare or the Common Core curriculum debate. Turns out, she was serious about that whole “mom in chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.

First of all, it’s important we don’t forget that Michelle Obama was not elected to anything. Her husband was. She may be powerful, but it’s the power that comes from being married to someone else powerful. There’s a limit on what she can actually accomplish, other than giving fiery speeches (which, don’t get me wrong, I would enjoy as well).  I don’t agree that a politician’s spouse should have a lot of influence on policy, even if I happen to love this particular spouse.  Do you really care what Todd Palin thinks about anything?

(Interestingly, back in 2010, Cottle lauded Sarah Palin as a feminist of sorts based on Todd’s role as a mostly stay-at-home dad.)

Second of all, Michelle Cottle’s argument that the First Lady gave up a “blue chip law firm” for “gardening” and “reading to children” is the same judgey-wudgey bullshit that some feminists espouse which only serves to divide all women. Though well-intentioned, these feminists criticize other women for not leaning into a successful career track (for whatever reason) and even for enjoying “feminine” past times like crafting and other domestic chores. As the “mom-in-chief” who promotes growing fresh vegetables, Michelle Obama seems to be bearing the brunt of this now.

To be sure, women are paid less than men and lack of maternity leave and affordable childcare forces the hands of parents, primarily women, to leave the workforce. Our choices aren’t always actual choices. But some feminists are guilty of supplying ammunition in the mommy wars by implying that traditionally masculine pursuits, like corporate-ladder climbing, are of primary importance.  That ignores the reality that some women actually do value their family lives more than capitalistic success.  Yet there is a sense that women have to do things exactly as men have done in order to be the “right” kind of feminist.

Cottle’s diss of Michelle Obama is racially ignorant as well. Black women have historically had no choice to work to support their families and gotten paid less and advanced less while doing so. I would reckon that’s what Michelle’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother before her experienced. As not only a woman but a Black woman whose script would have been written for her by the color of her skin in generations past, Michelle Obama deserves the right to “lean out.”  She’s allowed to support her husband’s career at the expense of her own. She’s allowed to stay at home to raise her children while doing traditional wifely things like gardening. For a Black woman from the lower-middle-class background (as the Robinson family in Chicago came from), that’s a sign of success.

I think what’s most frustrating about Michelle Cottle’s criticisms is that we don’t know whether Michelle Obama has “leaned out” by her own volition (she probably sees how stressful policy drudgery is better than anyone) or whether her ambitions and talents have been reined in by handlers, as they have for the fictional Mellie Grant. Wrote Cottle:

East Wing officials I spoke with stress that Michelle Obama is not about to tap her inner wonk—she will focus on young people, not policy—and while the task of promoting higher ed may be new, speaking directly to kids is simply what Michelle does.

That anecdote tells us literally nothing about Michelle Obama’s motivations, only that Cottle thinks all Michelle Obama “does” is just speak to kids.  (When she’s not picking out J.Crew outfits or toning her arms, of course.) Way to ignore whatever soft power she exercises  behind the scenes. Way to ignore her role model status as a Black woman with an Ivy League education and a once high-powered career. She also has raised two lovely children and seems pretty happy in her marriage. After Michelle Obama’s out of the White House, I imagine she’ll go back to some kind of  job — as normal a one she can have, given security concerns — especially because her kids will be older.  I’ve never toned my upper arms a day in my life, but I sure as hell relate to Michelle Obama a lot more than Laura Bush or Barbara Bush or even Hillary Clinton.

It never occurred to me, before reading Michelle Cottle’s piece, to disparage the First Lady for not being a good enough feminist. I perceive her to be a woman in a weird position with tons of pressure on her doing the best she can. A lot of people, especially women, see the seasons of her life and all that she has to juggle as refreshingly normal and even a reflection of our own lives. But at the same time, while she isn’t anywhere close to ornamental, Michelle Obama is also the wife of the person whom I voted for twice. Insofar as I care about the spouse of a politician, she is feminist enough, and real enough, for me.

[Politico Magazine]
[New Republic]

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[Image via WENN]