There has been a lot of mouth flapping over First Lady Michelle Obama’s “softer side of Sears” approach to her role in her husband’s administration. Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell responded to recent criticism of Michelle’s more traditionalist take on the role by arguing that the retrograde is actually a revolution when it comes to black women who have traditionally always worked and are not often viewed as feminine. In fact, in both society and popular culture we are often depicted as being devoid or divorced from our femininity.
More after the jump.
White, middle-class, gender norms in the United States have generally asserted that women belong in the domestic sphere. These norms have limited white women’s opportunities for education and employment. But the story has been different for women of color and women from poor and working-class origins.
These women have faced the requirement of employment and shouldered the extreme burden of attempting to effectively parent while providing financially for their families.
African American women were full participants in agricultural labor during slavery, the backbreaking work of sharecropping and the domestic services of Jim Crow. Even middle class and elite African American women have typically worked as teachers, journalists, entrepreneurs and professionals. At every level of household income and at every point in American history, these women have been much more likely to engage in paid labor than their white counterparts. Even Claire Huxtable worked full time.
So when first lady Obama makes a choice to focus on supporting her daughters through their school transition and providing companionship to her husband as he governs, she is not really conforming to norms. She is surprisingly thwarting expectations of African American women’s role in the family and representing a different image than we are used to encountering in this country.
All valid points, but some aren’t taking “black women are often looked at like friggin’ beast of friggin’ burden” as an answer. Namely US News & World Report’s Bonnie Erbe.
As noted above, I appreciate Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s perspective immensely, but still disagree with it. My white female ancestors also worked out of financial need when many women stayed home. My maternal grandmother worked her way up to become one of the first female directors of a department store’s art department in New York City in the 1930s. She and my grandfather had divorced and she worked for sustenance, as she had no other source of income.
I believe Mrs. Obama’s “Mom-in-Chief” image was created more by Obama image-makers David Axelrod et. al. to soften her into a first lady Americans could love. I think it is a sad state of affairs that Americans are more comfortable with a non-threatening first lady than with a career woman, but it is also a stereotype that screams to be abolished. Michelle Obama is just the person who could have done it, but she decided against it. Instead, she caved into advisors’ demands.
The truth is, until that stereotype becomes history, all women will suffer less power and clout in the workplace.
I can understand Erbe’s view, but Harris-Lacewell has a pretty valid point as well. The First Lady role is very old fashioned and most Americans are still threatened by the notion of a politically savvy, astute First Lady acting in a non-traditional, non-tea party throwing manner. But you just can’t shoot down the fact that black women are often viewed without having any feminine traits at all, even when we’re doing our damnedest to hold on to our femininity in the face of adversity.
The reality is she’s pretty much doing wonders by simply embracing the role for all its worth, being highly visible and projecting an image of cool confidence and sophistication about the whole mess. Black women know how to be tough. We’re raised to be tough. Some may argue we are too tough. Let us be soft. Dare I say it, my fellow non-black sisters, black women have a different image problem from yours. If your problem is that people don’t view you as assertive or competent and don’t take you seriously, ours is that we’re some nightmare fat mammy harridan/bitch-type, angry and screaming for vengeance who is pretty much not human, let alone a woman. Pardon us if we’re like, “OMG! I get to be the pretty girl at the dance now!”
Let us be the damn pretty girl at the damn dance! Let us be prom queen for five seconds, see what it feels like for people to defend our honor for once and then we’ll get back to assertiveness this and female empowerment that. It’s hard to complain about the pedestal if no one has ever put you there.
That said, Mom-In-Chief is kinda cringeworthy, but I get her point, as in her daughters are her priority. And I get that many individuals, especially feminists, want to see a warrior queen First Lady, but I’m just going to have to be in that minority of feminists who lives in a world where I acknowledge that the First Lady has to dance a delicate line because of society’s views and now simply isn’t the time for an unnecessary fight over the role of the First Lady in light of all the woes with the economy, the two wars and “pick a crisis, any crisis.”
You have to pick and choose your battles. Michelle is still doing her thing to the best of her abilities. It just seems greedy to want her to aggressively take on the gender wars as well. I think I speak for a lot of black women when I say hearing people go on and on about how fascinating a black woman is, then stick her on the cover of magazines and slobber her in drooling praise and have her not be a singer or entertainer is a novel thing that we’re simply not going to tire of any time soon. No one in Blackland is going to get sick of looking at pictures of Michelle hugging children. Especially little black children. Because … um, that’s our crack. What’s old hat to some is brand spanking new to the rest of us.
Let us have our retrograde crack that never was in peace, please. Will talk revolution later.