On Michelle Obama, feminism, race, and presidential politics

Today in Salon, Debra Dickerson has a great piece about Michelle Obama, the politics of being First Lady, and what it means that she’s the first woman of color to potentially fill that role. Some highlights below the jump…

On “opting out” to play hostess as First Lady:

I’m in a feminist fury about Michelle (I’ll use her first name to avoid confusion with her husband) feeling forced to quit, but make no mistake: I’m not blaming her. Few could stand up to the pressure she’s facing, especially from blacks, to sacrifice herself on the altar of her husband’s ambition. He could be the first black president, you know! Also, she must be beside herself trying to hold things together for her daughters. I’m blaming the world and every man, woman, child and border collie in it who helps send the message that women’s lives must be subordinate to everyone else’s.

On Hillary Clinton as trailblazer:

While I’m not blaming Michelle, I am issuing a challenge: This political and professional sutee won’t end until women refuse to step into the fire, disapproval be damned. Sen. Clinton can’t do everything: The rest of us women must stand our ground. Whatever else you think of Clinton, you can’t deny that she blazed a trail for women’s right to work and, like, be smart in public. And, man, what a beatdown she got. Since it was bringing about the end of the civilization as we know it, she caved, took her husband’s name and gave up a public policy role; she had to wait, like a good girl, until her husband couldn’t run for anything else. Valuable years of productivity, wasted. But at least giving up her career wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s first choice, as it is for most of the elite women who are abandoning their careers.

And on her decision not to publicly identify as feminist:

Feminism is rightfully criticized for being irrelevant to black women and ignoring their issues. When it’s not plain arrogant, that is. An excellent example of mainstream feminism’s high-handedness is Maureen Dowd’s recent petty bitching about Michelle’s jabs at her husband on the campaign trail. She sounded like a 1940s white woman reprimanding a “sassy” black maid. But feminism’s failure to engage with black women is only partly its own fault; black men have worked hard to reinforce the image of feminism as not just “white,” not just lesbian, not just a plot to make contented black women unhappy with their lot but also (as usual) a war against black men. This black male victimology has been so successful at changing the subject whenever black women complain that, 20 years after Anita Hill was successfully demonized as a tool of white feminists for daring to “bring down” a prominent black man, here’s Michelle’s tortured answer to the Washington Post’s F-question:
“You know, I’m not that into labels … So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it,” she said. “I wouldn’t identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or a progressive.”
How difficult it must be for someone so whip smart and so famously blunt, according to insiders, to have to mouth these political pieties. But if we know nothing else about Michelle Obama, we know she’s determined to live in the world the way it is, not the way it should be. But she’s in a prime position to help change all that.
Now is the perfect opportunity for the movement to reach out to black women by embracing Michelle and black women’s causes in general. Progressive women should be working their way toward the middle ground a political wife must occupy and politely engineer ways in which Michelle can put her postelection time, win or lose, to worthy causes important to the black community — welfare-to-work, hiring and job training, for example.

Go read the whole thing.

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