Upfront disclosure: I don’t know what’s in Michelle Obama’s head, so I can’t speak with certainty about the decisions she has or hasn’t made about her public role.
But there has clearly been a deliberate shift in how she presents herself from when Barack first started campaigning. In her new book about the 2008 election, Rebecca Traister remembers that at first it was Michelle as well as her husband who won over crowds of middle class working Americans. Although she was not excited or even necessarily happy to enter the realm of politics, while they were campaigning in Iowa in the early days, Traister recalls, “this woman who grew up on the South Side and went to Princeton and Harvard did not do anything halfway. So long as she was here, she was going to sell it…” She gave rousing speeches to crowds who declared such things as, “I would vote for her for president.” And in the middle of it all she didn’t shy away from her role as a career woman. “She was unapologetic about the fact that she, like Hillary, was not a housewife but a working mother,” Traister writes.
“I’ve felt so disconnected from Washington. You don’t know me! As a mother, as a professional, as a wife, you can’t represent me!” she said. Here was an unfussy assertion that her identity was multifaceted, and that in that formulation at least, her wifeliness came third to children and career.
Compare that to the Michelle Obama who gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver months later. Traister writes that “this smart and accomplished woman sum[med] herself up in relation to the other people in her life – ‘a wife who loves my husband’ and ‘a mom whose girls are at the heart and the center of my world.’” After her now infamous remark that she was proud of her country for the first time in her life, critics had started turning her into the paradigm of angry black femininity. So she did a round of publicity and “won over daytime audiences a being as girly as girly could be,” Traister recalls. Was it the campaign advisors who counseled this shift? Was it Barack? Or did it come from Michelle herself? Either way, the change is clear to see, and she has since fully embraced it.
Which is why I have something to add to Dana Goldstein’s concern that the media is whittling Michelle down to nothing but a fashion plate. True, no one seems to be able to help themselves from commenting endlessly about her choice of dress (including right-wingers who took the opportunity to equate her latest with socialism). But she isn’t passive in this role. She’s done a 180 in presenting herself as the embodiment of traditional femininity. She tackles safe issues like childhood obesity and military families (which are important, but not terribly threatening or controversial – her obesity campaigns have avoided tough food issues like agriculture subsidies and global warming). I think she deserves more credit for her role in crafting her own image – which is also to say that she shares the blame for promoting herself as unthreatening and playing down her credentials as a brilliant woman in her own right.
It’s possible that this was a choice to subvert other norms – the stereotype of black women as bad mothers, the long history of black women having to work to support families alongside their husbands, and a history of enslaved women who weren’t allowed to lay claim to their children, as Melissa Harris-Perry points out. It is a white, middle class gender norm that says a woman should stay in the home, one that hasn’t necessarily applied to black women. So by touting her warm and easy role as a mother, she subverts racial stereotypes that are still very much with us.
And to be fair, Michelle never wanted this spotlight. But she has it. And at first she was able to use it. She is clearly a smart and capable woman, both in caring for her family and in her career. Why can she only take on the tradition of black motherhood and not also address the “incredibly retro role of First Lady,” as Goldstein puts it? The Michelle Obama of Iowa would have been able to play up her role as a mother while also tackling issues that others are afraid to handle. Career came only second to children; it was still an important part of her identity. Yes, it might dent her sky-high approval ratings. It might even affect her husband’s ratings. But she would show young girls – of all races – that you can be a good mother and have an independent work life at the same time. And she could be an important factor in bringing about change in whatever tough issue she chooses to address.
Goldstein embedded a video in her post of one of those speeches Michelle gave back in Iowa. In it she talks of her reluctance to let Barack run, and says, “The reason that I said yes, was because I am tired of being afraid.” And she describes Barack’s decision to stand against the Iraq war, “When he could have lost taking a stand… It was unpopular. But he was right.” I would remind Michelle that fear – of damaging poll numbers, of conservative backlash, of doing more than a First Lady “should” – shouldn’t hold her back either. It’s a lot to ask of her. But she can take it. She can do things, even if they are unpopular, because they are right.