In an article titled, Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare, writer Michelle Cottle plays on the title of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg‘s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, to examine the ways in which First Lady Michelle Obama has disappointed feminists with her attention to issues not deemed hard-hitting enough or worthy of her immense intelligence and influence.
From Cottle’s article, published via Politico Magazine:
So 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. “We got exactly what we were told we were going to get,” Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, reminds me. “When the Obamas were campaigning in 2008, the American people were informed that she was going to primarily be taking care of her children.”
Cottle does a solid job of finding the balance between expressing her desire for a more politically engaged first lady, with her grudging understanding that feminism means different things for different women. That truth alone makes the position in which the first lady finds herself a precarious one.
Does Mrs. Obama’s dedication to her family above tackling, say, the persecution of whistle-blowers that her husband engages in or the killings of scores of Brown children around the world by U.S. MQ-Reaper drones — again, ordered by Commander-in-Chief Obama — make her less of a feminist?
Does focusing on obesity and education — two pivotal issues in Black America — as opposed to racial profiling largely exacerbated in this country by NYC Police Commissioner and ‘Stop and Frisk’ architect Ray Kelly make her less of a feminist? Kelly was, after all, one of President Obama’s top choices for Homeland Security before going with Jeh Johnson.
Do you see where I’m going here?
It would be difficult for Michelle Obama to challenge this White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy that we call America in any bold, intersectional way without also challenging her husband in the public sphere, something she clearly is not going to do — nor should she.
So does that make her less of a feminist or more of a (politically) loyal wife — and can the two ever be reconciled? Michelle Obama is playing her position as “First Lady,” an antiquated, heteronormative term in and of itself, and playing it very well according to the script handed out. In truth, it’s problematic to take pride in her “achievement” as being the nation’s first Black first lady, then take issue with the lack of feminism in an inherently patriarchal role.
Our issue, if there must be one, should be with the confines of the role itself, not with the woman who happens to fill it during any given administration.
As for Michelle Obama’s personal life: There is absolutely nothing wrong with making motherhood and family a top priority; in fact, I find it to be commendable. That is Black feminism* for many women. And to suggest otherwise, particularly in such a condescending, snide tone, proves once again that solidarity is strictly for White women.
That does not mean, however, that there is no room for critique.
I enjoy the first lady’s dougie as much as the next person; but I would also love to see her use her position to say, “I have daughters and they are Renisha McBride.” I would love for her to engage in substantive conversations about depictions of Black women in the media, in addition to issues such as street harassment and sexual violence within the Black community.
But that won’t occur until 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is far in her rear view. Those of us paying attention knew that when she moved in — and we fell in love with her anyway.
*I tackle the feminist divide and the racism in Cottle’s article here.
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