Michelle Obama and the New Face of Feminism

Ever since Michelle Obama said that her job now is to continue serving as “mom-in-chief,” the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus has been wincing. Oh, Marcus is quick to explain, what Michelle Obama said is fine and all. But, she wonders, doesn’t it set women back to have someone as high profile as the future first lady so proudly acknowledge her primary responsibility is motherhood?


I was okay, actually, with what Obama said. But I worried: Did she have to say it out loud, quite so explicitly? Is it really good for the team — the team here being working women — to have the “mommy” stamp so firmly imprinted on her identity?

For Marcus, it seems “strangely retro” for an Ivy League-educated lawyer like Michelle Obama to forgo her career in favor of raising her children. Yet even Marcus admits that’s a choice many women make, including most of her own friends. When it comes to them, Marcus seems to find it makes sense for a woman to focus on raising her children, at least while they are young. Marcus herself is a working mother who acknowledges that she, too, finds herself “recalibrating” her life to balance the needs of family and career. Of Sarah Palin’s bid for the vice presidency while her son Trig was still a newborn, Marcus doesn’t wonder whether Palin could juggle motherhood and career but, rather, “why she’d choose to.”

So why the “wincing” over Michelle Obama’s choice?

Maybe some of it is due to suspicion that this nurturing, earth-mother version of Michelle Obama isn’t really her at all but, rather, a public role to which she’s sacrificed her true self. After all, the Michelle Obama of the early campaign was confrontational, rankling many with her remarks about finally being proud of America once her husband was nominated for the presidency. Her apparent belief that Americans would continue voting based on skin color struck many, including myself, as racist. Her belligerent style drew so much flak, in fact, that Barack told the press to lay off of her.


Afterwards, we were reintroduced to a toned-down, Mommy-fied version of Michelle Obama, who, when appearing on The View, spoke of herself as a mother but not as a lawyer or policy wonk. Her DNC speech, which served as the crowning moment in the transformation of Michelle Obama, was carefully crafted to reinforce this new vision of Michelle Obama as a modern-day June Cleaver.

No doubt there are some who’d hoped — if not fully expected — that Michelle Obama would become the vocal, fist-pumping new face of feminism, a symbol that in this day and age women really can have it all. They’d envisioned her, briefcase in hand, hurrying out of the White House each morning amid a crowd of Secret Service as she hustled to the office, a high-powered working woman married to the most powerful man in the world. And, if she could do it, so could they, right?

To those who’d seen Michelle Obama as a symbol, her announcement that she plans to focus on raising her daughters comes as a blow — a personal blow inspiring “feminist fury” — for which they blame society at large for subordinating women’s lives to everyone else’s. It’s that very belief, more than Michelle’s emphasis on motherhood, which qualifies as “strangely retro” for within it lies the assumption that she is a victim making a sacrifice, and not a fully empowered woman making a choice.


If Barack Obama is, as his supporters claim, the herald of a generational change, his wife Michelle’s choice is equally representative of a long overdue shift in feminist thought. Though the first wave of feminism is long past, Michelle Obama’s very public choice in favor of motherhood signifies the official twilight of the second wave which, like Marcus, saw females either being on the team of working women or being against the movement.

Asked by Soledad O’Brien if letting go of her career doesn’t somehow diminish her because “sometimes your career helps to define who you are” — the rallying cry of second-wave feminism — Michelle not only justified her own choice but that of all third-wave feminists who refuse to see their gender divided between “good” (read: working) and “bad” (read: stay-at-home mothers) feminists.

“It doesn’t for me,” Michelle said immediately. “What I do in my life defines me. A career is one of the many things I do in my life. I am a mother first. Where do I get my joy and my energy first and foremost? From my kids.”

Michelle Obama, with her Ivy League degree and a wealth of career opportunities available to her, is no less a feminist for opting to stay home with her children. She is no less a symbol. She is, if anything, a powerful reminder that a woman is relevant and meaningful for who she is, and not what she does.



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