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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  1. EG
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I have a real problem with Maureen Dowd being called on as a representative of mainstream feminism–would any arbiter of mainstream feminism agree? She replaced a true mainstream liberal feminist, Anna Quindlen, but that doesn’t make Dowd one. Dowd’s a sexist twit, and she’s been a sexist twit to white women, so it doesn’t exactly shock me that she’s a sexist, racist twit when it comes to black women. Surely a better example can be found–and if it can’t, perhaps that says something positive about mainstream feminism.

  2. annajcook
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I have a real problem with Maureen Dowd being called on as a representative of mainstream feminism
    Agreed, EG! Her book, Are Men Necessary?, pissed me off in so many feminist ways . . . I thought she was a weird person to pick as an example in the article as well.
    Other than that, thanks Ann for the fascinating piece on Michelle Obama and the (hopefully) evolving role of the politician’s “wife,” and the particular difficulty of being the wife of (potentially) the first African-American president.
    Another great point in Dickerson’s piece:
    “Every other month [since] I’ve had children I’ve struggled with the notion of ‘Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?’” she said. “I have gone back and forth every year about whether I should work.” . . . Funny how she didn’t mention her husband’s parental angst; there have been whispers that he’s been pretty busy, too, what with being the great black hope and all.

  3. JoanKelly
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I would say that actually, women who identify as feminists and then marginalize other women are rightly criticized – as distorting feminism while harming the women they’re ignoring/discounting.

  4. Miss Modular
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Would it be great if she identified herself as a feminist? Yes. Am I going to get in a tizzy because she’s not? No.
    Frankly I’m not really surprised or distraught considering that her husband’s politics are very middle ground and vague. And now that he’s revealed a bit more about his views on affirmative action, I really don’t expect much from either of them.

  5. Miss Modular
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    p.s. bring back DEAN!

  6. Posted May 21, 2007 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m not going to comment on the specifics of Michelle Obama, because I can’t stand the whole culture around discussing “First Ladies” and potential “First Ladies.” It downright pisses me off. I wrote a post about it a few days ago. I really think that it’s nothing more than a chance to openly, publicly judge “ordinary” women.

  7. Posted May 21, 2007 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Posted May 21, 2007 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Oooh, ooh, I’ve been blogging about MoDo’s obsession with Michelle for a while. It really bugs me, particularly when I hear so-called lefties parroting Maureen’s snark.
    My latest rant’s here.

  9. Mina
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    “I’m not going to comment on the specifics of Michelle Obama, because I can’t stand the whole culture around discussing ‘First Ladies’ and potential ‘First Ladies.’”
    Remember back in 2000 when Elizabeth Dole was running for Prez and some of those articles were “rate the potential First Ladies and First Gentleman”?

  10. Posted May 21, 2007 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Nope. I’m too young :) I didn’t care about politics, yet, when I 15.
    But I’ll tell you that I’m already sick of hearing about Potential First Gentleman Clinton and how he would actually be the president and a vote for Hillary is a vote for Bill.

  11. annajcook
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ll tell you that I’m already sick of hearing about Potential First Gentleman Clinton and how he would actually be the president
    Um . . . I’ll admit I was barely politically conscious when Clinton the First was prez. But weren’t people always complaining that Hillary was a behind-the-scenes president back then? Clearly, the woman can’t be both the shadow president and a puppet president! Message discipline people! ;o)

  12. EG
    Posted May 21, 2007 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Cara, Anna, you’re making me feel so old!
    Ah, well. Happens to all of us if we’re lucky, right?

  13. Posted May 21, 2007 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, EG!
    Clearly, the woman can’t be both the shadow president and a puppet president!
    She can if it serves right wing ideology!

  14. Posted May 23, 2007 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Well, my favorite post on the subject is Why Michelle Obama Can’t Just Be Herself over at The Coup Magazine. Cause herself is a Strong Black Woman.

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