A recent article in Politico magazine called First Lady Michelle Obama a “feminist nightmare” and lambasted her for her failure to be “edgier” and more vocal about more controversial issues. One commenter quoted in the article asserted that Michelle Obama has become “an almost music-hall-level imitation of a warm-and-fuzzy, unthreatening, bucolic female from some imaginary era from the past.” The author ends on a note of somber resignation: “Someday somebody will shatter the conventional First Lady mold. It just won’t be Michelle Obama.” Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. Michelle Obama is the most unconventional First Lady in the history of First Ladies. No amount of reading to children and gardening will undo this.
Discourses of the good wife and mother, along with discourses about empowered womanhood, have historically been forged within the frameworks of racial and class based ideologies. This is especially true today. There remains, for instance, an intimate link between motherhood, race, class and civic membership. Black motherhood is a particularly difficult role to occupy in contemporary United States society, and that difficulty is heightened for educated black women who sometimes find themselves conflicted by the possibility of desireable work outside of the home and meaningful work within it. While an iconic goal of the mainstream (white) feminist movement has often been to get out of the house, for too many black women the goal has long been to get into the house—that is, into their own houses and out of the houses of others where for centuries they worked for no wages or low wages.
Black First Ladyhood is a whole other dimension of black motherhood and womanhood. It is a role whose demands are at once so complex, novel, and difficult to maneuver that its performance certainly defies and disrupts most labels that we might try to append to it. This is in large part because being a black First Lady involves a much-too-short historic journey from the kitchen of the plantation Big House to the Executive Residence of the White House. And we live even now in a world where Ivy League-credentialed, business suit wearing, briefcase carrying black women may easily be confused with the cleaning staff, courtesy of a pervasive, deep-seated social and cognitive dissonance that admits of few other possibilities. It is perhaps little wonder that Michelle Obama might like to pause to relish her role as Mom-in-Chief. Indeed what a wonder it is for Michelle Obama to be cast as Everybody’s Mother rather than as somebody’s mammy.
Media portrayals of Michelle Obama’s allegedly deficient feminism are often assumed to be neutral and ideologically pure, fueled by the wisdom of decades of well-honed feminist activism and deep thought. However, too often neither writers nor readers of such portrayals are conscious of the strong ideological biases that are inevitably encoded, and they sometimes adopt such stances without much critical inquiry. It is certainly true that every act by every woman is not feminist. Even so, feminism is a broad, multifaceted, and highly contextual concept. Media pieces like the one in Politico do feminism a grave injustice by framing Michelle Obama as one of the enemies of feminism, taking scattershot aim with a claim that is at once overwrought and undertheorized.