Stepford By Choice: Why A First Lady’s Indentity Is the First Casualty of a Political War

Snob reader Nonny posted an interesting question and observation about First Lady Michelle Obama and her first appearance since the Inauguration where she hosting the reception for the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter law Thursday.

During the signing, I couldn’t help but wonder how Michelle Obama felt to be sitting in the audience while all these power women – Clinton, Pelosi, and others – were up front and center around her husband as he signed the Ledbetter document into law and passed out the signing pens.

Michelle Obama is as intelligent and accomplished as any of them, and yet here she was, sitting politely and quietly in the front row, America’s first ‘hostess.’ It really made me uncomfortable that she may be relegated to the background no matter what she does. It was nice that she got up to speak later, but that was an introduction of Lilly L. mostly.

I hope there’s an important active role for her in the future because while I love her first mom shtick and her fashion sense etc, I don’t want to see all that intelligence and power sidelined for 4-8 years.

And I thought she looked tired, too, not so vibrant.

Nonny asked me what I thought of this and as I started to write a book for an answer I realized I could sum up Michelle’s “damned if she does/damned if she doesn’t” situation as the wife of the president in one sentence:

First Ladies lose (if they’re interesting).

Very early on in the presidential campaign, before Barack Obama secured the nomination, Michelle Obama was peppered with questions and surrounded with murmurs that she could be the second coming of Hillary Clinton, the highly educated, controversial, brilliant yet determined, politically ambitious wife of President Bill Clinton. People projected on Michelle the image of an angry, over-educated careerist and you could say she’s been combating that image ever since.

In the real world, there’s nothing wrong with being an ambitious woman. But in the world of politics things are still in a 1950s mindset for the role of the wife of a powerful man.

Michelle has repeatedly told the press her children are her first priority and that she’s not going to take on any policy role in her husband’s administration. She is far more likely to recede to the background like past First Ladies and will not be anything remotely like Clinton.

Before she even became First Lady, Michelle was chastised for being “too frank” about her husband’s flaws. In a 2007 column, Maureen Dowd famously poo-pooed an “emasculating” Michelle for sometimes knocking off the halo people place on her husband’s head.

I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal — a comic routine that rests on the presumption that we see him as a god.

The tweaking takes place at fundraisers, where Michelle wants to lift the veil on their home life a bit and give the folks their money’s worth.

At the big Hollywood fund-raiser for Senator Obama in February, Michelle came on strong.

“I am always a little amazed at the response that people get when they hear from Barack,” she told the crowd at the Beverly Hilton, as her husband stood by looking like a puppy being scolded, reported Hud Morgan of Men’s Vogue. “A great man, a wonderful man. But still a man. …

“I have some difficulty reconciling the two images I have of Barack Obama. There’s Barack Obama the phenomenon. He’s an amazing orator, Harvard Law Review, or whatever it was, law professor, best-selling author, Grammy winner. Pretty amazing, right?

“And then there’s the Barack Obama that lives with me in my house, and that guy’s a little less impressive. For some reason this guy still can’t manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn’t get stale, and his 5-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is.”

She said that the TV version of Barack Obama sounded really interesting and that she’d like to meet him sometime.

Many people I talked to afterward found Michelle wondrous. But others worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband — under fire for lacking experience — as an undisciplined child.

(Source: “She’s Not Buttering Him Up,” Maureen Dowd, New York Times)

Dowd called Michelle the “princess of South Chicago, a formidable Princeton and Harvard Law School grad, (who) wants us to know that she’s not polishing the pedestal.”

And I’ve heard many women, white and black, complain over perceived “disrespect” in interviews when Michelle sometimes talks over her husband. Cries that misfires in her wardrobe are “embarrassing” to her husband and his presidency. Accusations of phantom militancy from peanut gallery (“Stokely Carmichael in a dress,” said Mr. Williams) and condemnations of racism from the dead-enders.

With two young children who must now adjust to life in a media bubble, I’d imagine she’s telling the truth when she says they are her number one priority. So unless something changes, she’ll probably have more in common with First Lady Laura Bush, in terms of exposure, as compared to Clinton. She may move on to some of the activism of an Eleanor Roosevelt, but in a far, far more low-key way. (Like Lady Bird Johnson, who was just as instrumental in pushing for Civil Rights as LBJ, but let her cheating heart husband do most of the tub-thumping.)

First Lady is a very “traditionalist” position where Americans, despite their progressiveness, like their political wives viewed through the “Stepford-like prisms” of mother and helpmate, not activist, politician, leader, careerist or policy wonk. When you consider that one of the biggest controversies Cindy McCain had to endure in her race for First Lady was whether or not she created her own cookie recipe should tell you how antiquated the overall mood is.

The woman is an heiress who sat on the board of her family’s company. She’s probably never even seen the inside of a kitchen, let alone baked. Yet there she was, robotic and smiling, never an unkind word, even when her tin eared husband offered her up the indignity of “Miss Buffalo Chip.”

And as you may recall, as First Lady, Hillary Clinton was eviscerated for being ambitious. To this day, whether she is being very good or very Machiavellian, she is almost always seen through a scanner darkly for donning the headband of perceived feminist angst and declaring she would not stay at home and bake cookies.

(T)here is really no aspect of our collective fears or furies that cannot be grafted onto her character. Did she refuse to meet with mothers of dead soldiers? Did she kill Vince Foster? Did she get two Black Panthers off on murder charges? Did she cause the Enron scandal? Despite their proven falseness, such accusations are routinely made because it’s easy to mold the facts and fictions of Hillary’s life into any kind of argument you like. Even her body has become a public landscape that most Americans feel quite comfortable trekking across in search of cultural clues about ourselves and our politics. Edwards’ sculpture merely makes literal this national impulse.

It all began when the nation had regular debates about her hair, but now we’re comfortable in our kitchens and on our talk shows presuming any damned thing we want to about her. Is she gay or straight, closet conservative or secret liberal, snarling she-wolf or one smart cookie baker? It isn’t only her career as a public figure that’s clay in our hands. No part of her life, however sacred, is off-limits. John McCain once got a lot of laughs cracking this joke: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.” Chelsea was still in high school at the time. In 2003 Americans happily participated in a cnn/USA Today/Gallup poll to determine whether Hillary should get a divorce. In the spring of 2006, the New York Times ran a front-page story that employed investigative journalism tactics to extrapolate the potential number of conjugal visits the Clintons’ marital bed hosted each month. Using “interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities,” the author concluded: “Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple’s schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night…. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons’ private schedule.”

Damn aides.

(Source: “Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary,” Jack Hitt, Mother Jones)

Now for Clinton everything is coming up roses (even though she lost her bid for the Democratic nomination to Obama), but she was loathed for refusing to yield to what the public wanted on out of a First Lady — a gracious, quiet, retiring, supportive, but dull, woman. Preferably attractive, but not too attractive, lest she would spur jealousy and be accused of stealing attention. To be well-dressed, but not too well-dressed, lest she be seen as vain. To be well-mannered and subservient to her powerful husband and a throw-back to “The Way We Never Were” fantasy of the homemakers and debutantes of the 1950s. This was one of the reasons why both Democrats and Republicans and nearly all Americans had a high opinion of Laura Bush despite who her husband was.

She accepted the Stepfordization. Even if it was a smile wrapped in a cloying Texas accent and a lie. She embraced it as her ballast against the prying eyes of the world.

Laura Welch Bush was “perfect” as a First Lady in the respect that she never had anything controversial to say. Obviously using her mother-in-law’s stealth First Lady campaign as a model. (Who knew Barb was such a belligerant firecracker?) 

Laura dressed nice, but not too nice. She had a folksy accent, was shy and overly polite. And she was a good little Tammy Wynette who just sang “Stand By Your Man” for eight years.

She adopted a “safe” First Lady cause — reading — and later, when she got a touch “bolder” in the second term, women’s rights in foreign countries and the people of Burma. With nothing to complain about people were able to project a traditionalist view on Laura, seeing what they wanted to see (NICE LADY!) and nothing else.

But in reality, the woman was an enigma.

Award-winning “Angels In America” playwright Tony Kushner wrote a piece where he tried to find the “true” Laura Bush. It became an anti-Iraq War, anti-Bush Administration political play, wildly performed in 2004. It was entitled “Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.”

TONY KUSHNER: Maybe all liberalism and progressivism and left-leaning politics are pathological but I would argue less maladaptive and delusional than, say, well, your politics, or rather your husband’s — since no one knows what yours really are, which is why I find you so fascinating, it’s——

LAURA BUSH: Oh you know what mine are, don’t be so fascinated, you snoop, mine are just a whole lot like his are, maybe not so, not so, well that’s none of your business.

Source: New York Times

Being an enigma will be harder for Michelle to pull off because of her past as such an outspoken, successful careerist with a pedigree education and the fact that she is the first black First Lady, but she can easily become a wallflower if she chooses. America is already encouraging her to do so, begging that she simply wear nice clothes, smile and trot out her cute daughters once in awhile.

(Or get knocked up and indulge in our patriarchal, presidential dynasty fantasies by producing a son.)

If she does these things for the next four-to-eight years (while taking on some benign First Lady cause like military families and child welfare), all the Michelle-hate talk will almost disappear. (And I say almost because some Bush haters will still bring up that Laura was an enabler to a drunk and she once accidentally killed a guy when she was a teenager in a tragic vehicular accident. Oh, and she smokes.) So, First Lady’s can’t win. (Unless you’re dull as toast.)

I don’t know if Michelle can pull off “toast.” There might be some butter on that slice and some jam on the side and maybe a cup of coffee from time-to-time, but the push to put her “in her place” will be overwhelming. It is likely, she will play the game in public just to maintain her sanity, but still be her true self with her family and friends. For the sorority of the First Wives is about Stepfordization by choice. No one says you have to read stories to kindergartners and host teas, but, believe me, the next four years will be much smoother is she drops in, tunes out and invests in Valium.

Or whatever Laura Bush was popping. That woman never looked like she had a bad day.

21 thoughts on “Stepford By Choice: Why A First Lady’s Indentity Is the First Casualty of a Political War

  1. I say don’t count Michelle out just yet. She has literally been on the road for the last two years. Then the inauguration, along with meeting with her chief of staff and other duties we probably don’t know much about as civilians, and getting acclamated to life in the White House. I bet she is just a bit tired.Once she gets her sea legs, I’m positive we will see more and more of our dynamic First Lady. I will bet money that in six months, she will have her causes she will help champion. Michelle is thourogh as hell. She’ll be okay.

  2. I think that Michelle is smart and she probably has studied the mistakes and triumphs of her predecessors. From this recent news article of how she is assembling her staff, their backgrounds and skills and the work she intends to do, it sounds a lot to me like she is going to be a combination of Lady Bird Johnson and Hillary Clinton. Its sad that there are still a good number of Americans that have a problem with educated and articulate women but it is what it is. A first lady can either allow the media to make her image a constant struggle with this moronic segment of our population and reduce her effectiveness(see what happened to Hillary) or she can focus on the things that matter to her but dress it up in terms that will not create a media frenzy as Lady Bird Johnson tried to do. She was an environmentalist – pretty much a tree hugger before it was politically correct to be green 🙂 But she didnt go out insisting everyone else be green. Instead she founded the project to "beautify our highways & cities". That does sound nice and first ladyish doesn’t it?

  3. Give her a break! Geez.She is not an elected official or part of a cabinet. She has not been in the political game as long as the aforementioned ladies. Michelle chose to support her husband in his race for the Whitehouse.There is a such thing as protocol and she knows her place. I love Michelle as much as the next person but she is the wife of the President. There is nothing belittling or shameful in that position. Maybe she wants a break just to raise her beautiful daughters. Either way it will not change my support for her or admiration of her.

  4. I wouldn’t say anyone is counting Michelle out, but we’ve already seen how the public and the media treats outspoken First Lady’s and Michelle bashing has been en vogue since 2007, so she’s got quite the beast to deal with in the form of people’s expectations. No matter what a First Lady does, she’s going to receive some degree of criticism, even if she’s just being herself. People want this ficitious character, not a flesh and blood person.Michelle, like every First Lady before, will have to figure out how to find that balance between maintaining true to her identity while accepting that people are going to be giant assholes about things.

  5. I think it will be a real personal struggle for Michelle Obama. Quite frankly, the dynamic of her personal relationship with Barack must be very interesting. It’s obvious from her past comments that Michelle has had to carry the weight of their home life quite often while Barack was on his way to becoming President…starting from his time in the IL Senate. Having been the "strong Professional Black woman" for so long, she now the wife of the President aka First Lady. I know that some people see it as a bad thing that she is probably will not be a "Hillary Clinton" First Lady, but for me…because of the way I feel about children and child-rearing, I think she should be a mother first and foremost. ..and take on such issues related to life-work balance, and military families. Really just her BEING First Lady/Mother will have an immense effect on the African American…I think emphasis of being a good black mother is sorely lacking. We certainly have the "strong, independent, educated Black woman" ideal on lock. And non-blacks already are starting to accept that the Huxtable idea of a black family is not a figment of their imagination.As far as Michelle "emasculating" comments about Barack, I think part of it is a result of what I mentioned previously about Michelle being both mom and dad for some time…what normal families go thru (check out I also think part of it is just to make Barack more human. When I see them together it seems like those comments are not a big deal. She is the ying to his yang and they are right for each other.

  6. Michelle is just going to have to be herself, bottom line, love her or leave her. She is a mother first and foremost and secondly she is the President’s wife, atleast that is how I think she sees things, she will knock down many stereotypes about us, she already has. I think her role will be tradional but with a twist, more like a mother and a wife with a cause then activist or a Hillary Clinton, and I love Hillary, Im excited that she is the new Secretary of State, it is a position that she will bring great energy to. I think Michelle being our first African-American First Lady is just overwhelming in itself, she is definitely goiing to leave her mark either way.

  7. I appreciate the long thoughtful response, Snob, it has given me alot to think about, as have all the comments. I wouldn’t want Michelle to be Hillary or Laura, it’s just that I think she has contributed so much already that I would hate to see her recede into the Whitehouse drapes (plenty fabric there to hide yourself in) for however long the Prez is in office. nonny

  8. I don’t know if many of you understand it but the Presidency is a lot about protocol and etiquette. The President is the Commander in Chief of the armed services and the leader of our country. His wife has to adhere to the same set of rules and guidelines set forth hundreds of years ago by earlier government officials. Mrs. Obama’s role is basically ceremonial and I’m sure she knows who she is and who she answers to. Everyone needs to stop comparing her life to that of the wives she now precedes because each one was and is an individual with their own characteristics and identities. Mrs. Obama is exactly who she was when she became a public figure, I don’t feel that it’s beneath her to be regulated to the role that so many of you have no understanding about. She is still just as powerful as the other accomplished women in that room and one thing we must remember is that she is not a politician, her husband is. For Mrs. Obama there is no clear definition in being a first lady, there is no right way but if she makes a wrong impression she will be harshly judged as she is now. Her main concern is still for her children and of their adjustment to a very public life.Some of us need to stop projecting our own hopes and dreams through those of the first family. It’s okay to be inspired, it’s something totally different when you attempt to live your lives through them. Just by doing this a lot of people are setting themselves up for disappointment. Create your own American dream even if your own has been deferred, it is still achievable…you can still reach those dreams on your own.

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful piece, Danielle. I look forward to watching Michelle remake the role of First Lady into that of First Woman. By allowing herself to express the many facets of womanhood, wife, mother, partner, advocate, professional, she expands the universe of possibilities for herself and all First Women to follow. I am grateful that she is willing to show that she is human, as we all are.

  10. Michelle is fascinating to me. I always wonder about the interior lives and thought processes of women who give up high-profile careers for their families. Hillary seemed to actively chafe against the established role of First Lady, and Michelle has obviously learned that being so upfront about your ambition as a political spouse can make you a very unpopular figure, but when Barack makes comments like "Isn’t my wife awesome? She should be president!" I totally don’t laugh. Because she should be president of something. The fact that she isn’t may have been a choice she made, but it’s always difficult for me to believe that smart accomplished women who opt out really choose to do so in the purest sense.I’m not a parent, though, and it’s obvious that both Obamas are really devoted to their kids. Maybe it’s just something I can’t understand because I haven’t lived it.Anyway, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to enjoy seeing Michelle do her thing for the next 4-8 years, whatever that thing ends up being.

  11. I think those of you who are taking offense at this article are missing the point. I don’t think Danielle is criticizing Michelle Obama. I believe she is just articulately fleshing out the potential challenges, struggles, and pitfalls that come along with the role of First Lady, particularly if you are a highly educated, accomplished, and driven woman. I have no doubt that Michelle is genuine in her desire to be "First Mom", and that is an admirable and necessary role! However, I have also seen how she has been blasted by certain members of the media and others in the peanut galleries (as Danielle has well pointed out) for merely voicing her opinion — and how careful she often is to downplay her own accomplishments to avoid comparisons to the hated, rebellious Hilary Clinton. To me the issue is, what choices does she have? Should she or any other woman be forced to simply accept the traditional "protocols" of the First Lady’s role — or be bludgeoned (figuratively) for not doing so — or is it maybe time for the constrictions on the role to be relaxed so that the person filling it can do whatever the heck they want (within reason) without fearing that they’re going to be labeled "militant" or "bitchy" or "doesn’t-know-her-place" And wouldn’t it be much more progressive if society allowed the role to morph into something more modern? The point is not what Michelle or Laura or Barbara or Hilary chose to do within in the role — it’s a question of, what choices did they feel they actually had? And in a broader sense, what does that mean for women in general? Disclaimer: The concept of "First Lady" being considered an actual position with rules/regulation/protocol in and of itself is kind of weird to me, but then again I’m Canadian and we don’t have the same mythology surrounding our leadership. Not that it’s a bad thing — I just keep thinking: lighten up! Let the woman be who she be! (within reason, of course 😉 )

  12. The problem with a ‘2-for-1’ deal like Hillary Clinton, is that they didn’t run on it. If you’re not elected, and the people have no way to hold you ACCOUNTABLE, then, no, there should be no 2-for-1 deal. Look, this country has problems and will continue to have problems with an intelligent, strong BLACK woman that shatters every comfortable stereotype that they have about Black women. After spending centuries taking care of other people’s children, hearing Michelle stand up unapologetically and proclaim that her first priority is taking care of the well-being of HER children…makes me smile everytime I hear it. If she did nothing more than everything Laura Bush did, it would still be different because it’s Michelle Obama doing it. So, if she only did that, and provided The President, with a comfort zone that allows him to keep his sanity over the next 4 years…Michelle Obama would have done enough for me. Anything else she does, is just gravy.

  13. Hmmm…there’s so much I want to say and so little time to say it.I’m confused by Nonny’s initial statement that was worried about Michelle because she saw Barack surounded by powerful women and thought that Michelle should have been up there glowing with him and get her own signing pen.First things first…Nancy Pelosi = elected representative (house) from California and duly elected speaker of the house by her party.Hillary Clinton = former elected representative (senate) from New York and newly sworn secretary of state.Michelle Obama = wife of presidentThat list doesn’t take away from any of the trio, I am just listing the qualifications for attending the function. This venue like many of the events she will attend as Barack’s consort will be to draw attention to the reason behind the function not herself. There is no stepfordization going on…its simply that there is no job description for being a wife..which means that as first lady she can do as little or as much as she likes. She lives in a house that has staff to take care of it and a preservation society to support it. We the people of the US elected Barack Obama to lead this country.He has asked her to be his wife and the mother of his children. She said yes.He will only be president for 4-8 years, but they will be a family forever..I am happy that she takes her commitment to them seriously. If he serves the full 8 years, these young girls will be young ladies and ready to move on in their lives when he leaves office…these are precious moments in a child’s life and it is a huge task that will require sacrifice on both their parts.I also think its important to mention…there is one president and he speaks for this nation and the office he holds. That person is Barack Obama. That unity of voice is one that not even his vice president or his political appointees would challenge him on and nor should his wife.Right now I don’t care what she thinks. If she disagrees with him…I want her to do it in the privacy of her home..but when she steps out in public…I want him to have her full support.Not because I don’t think she’s intelligent, but because his job demands it.Whatever duties/expectations they work out for her between them…I want him to support her and I know she will do her best because that’s how she rolls.I also think that the social clout afforded her position..which is only magnified by her husband’s popularity make any notions that she will fade into the shadows a non sequitur

  14. For the record:My piece was about the efforts of a public to force their view of what a First Lady should be on a First Lady and how that inevitably leads to a choice of muting one’s personality. What was once acceptable as a citizen doesn’t fly under the hyper-scrutiny of the White House. So this was about the reality all First Ladies face, regardless, of where you have to decide how you will handle this pressure of expectations from others and their desire to define you. Even if that definition is false. So it was more about our society’s patriarchal leanings than saying anything is wrong with Michelle. The point of the piece that there is nothing wrong with Michelle. We, the American public, and our expectations of what we think a First Lady should be is the problem. It is the public and the media who make wardrobe choices, off-handed comments about your husband and fantasy accusations of militarism that are the ones ruining everything, forcing the women of powerful men to put their personas on mute. That’s why it is a choice. Some First Lady’s choose to buck the trend and take the lumps. Others accept the antiquated nature of the ceremonial role.I just know that Michelle said her kids are her priority and that is more than understandable, but that won’t stop people from demanding more. She had complaints from the peanut gallery that as a successful woman she was "cheapening" herself by wanting to be a "mom-in-chief."You can’t win as a First Lady on this unless you adopt the speak when spoken to model. The criticism will come over any and everything. That’s what the post was about. Our expectations and how they are suffocating.

  15. I was thinking the exact same thing as the woman that commented about Michelle Obama. Michelle is a very accomplished woman and a feminist. What about Michelle’s career? I just do not believe this intelligent, hard working woman will be satisfied just being in the background. I don’t believe it. I beieve she will get bored and will want to go back to work. Why can’t Michelle work? I don’t see the issue here? Yes Barack is President but so what?So Michelle’s dreams and goals for herself have to go down the tubes for the sake of keepig face and appeasing a sexist publc? NO WAY. I believe Michelle is afeminist and I believe she will want a career of her OWN.

  16. Nobody said Michelle can’t take care of her kids and b a good mother. Nobody is suggesting her children should not be her priority. HOWEVER,I find it hard to believe such an accomplished woman will be satisifed JUST being First Lady. I think society is sexist and I beleve if Michelle wants to go back to her career she SHOULD. She is such an intelligent woman she will WANT to do more. I think that’s what people are trying to say. And if she wants a career well why not? Why can’t she work if she wants to eventually.

  17. I believe that Michelle will take on whatever agenda she fancies in her own time. I think people should lay off of her..I couldn’t imagine what a worlwind her life has been over the last couple of years. Nothing could be more important than making sure her children are sound. There is absolutely no shame in keeping her family life in order. It is a job that she takes very seriously and in fact, no one else could possibly do as well as Michelle.

  18. Michelle Obama is not simply "another first lady". She is the light of Barack Obama’s fire, his inspiration, his rock…the ultimate source of his superpower! I hardly see her role as a full time support system to one of the most powerful men in the world as a downgrade for her. In fact, she has stepped up BIG TIME in the kind of sacrifices and shared stress she will endure during her eight years (yeah, that’s right) in the White House.Secondly, it has been decades since we had a first lady that inspired a resurgence in GIRL POWER!!!I for one welcome her brand of Feminism for the 21st Century. To even compare her to the Bush women (ick!) Nancy Reagan (you gotta be joking) or Hillary Clinton (not in your wildest dreams) is an INSULT!She breaks the mold! Time to hit ‘refresh’ on your mindset!!!

  19. I think we as society should leave her alone and let her do what she feels her role is. Sometimes I feel that because she is such well rounded person overall, educated, professional, intelligent, etc., that we especially as black women maybe setting our own high standards and expectations for her. After all, it hasn’t even been a month yet, and people are already asking, "Well why hasn’t or why didn’t she…". I’m sure Michelle knows what to do and when to do it. I have no doubts that she will.

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