Mom-In-Chief: Refreshing or Insulting

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.

36 thoughts on “Mom-In-Chief: Refreshing or Insulting

  1. I think with this administration in general that everything is damned if you do, damned if you don’t at this point. If she was out there more "picking any crisis" she would be criticized as being a bad mother, can’t win, le sigh….

  2. Why can’t Michelle Obama just be herself? (Which she’s doing anyway..thank Heavens!). I guess there’s always going to be talking heads always trying to drag someone (who could care less about their agenda) to build a name for themselves. Michelle is living by example and creating a most wonderful balance of a successful relationship, independence, motherhood, preserving her sexy all while being authentic. All women could rip a page out of her book.Do we really feel like Michellle’s not doing enough or are we just fulfilling the need to analyze, pick apart and dissect?I have nothing but deep love for Barack and Michelle cause they don’t talk shit all day; they walk the walk and put the work in to make their lives look effortless. Inspiration is living by example.

  3. Right on Danielle.Also, her daughters need even more emotional guidance given the high profile job of their father. Very few women can relate to Michelle’s situation. I do however share her desire to raise strong, confident well-adjusted children a feat, I imagine to be even more challenging given the level of scrutiny the family receives. The black mother is generally 3 things: crack momma, welfare queen or baby momma. Michelle represents neither of these things and frankly its a breath of fresh air. In families we make sacrifices; and that’s ok. I look forward to putting my JD down and becoming a mommy. Its the greatest job I will ever have and one that money or other peoples opinions of me will change. If that’s not your cup of tea, thank God we have choices.

  4. @ kokoesquireI agree. I honestly don’t know what part of "The woman has two young kids" people do not understand. She said her kids were the number one priority. Chelsea was a teen in the White House, Sasha and Malia are still in elementary school. I remember how I was in elementary school and I needed my mother. And I wasn’t even the child of a president. I just needed my mother to be there to care for me and support me. I honestly don’t know what people want from her. I think she’s already gone above and beyond the call of duty. Those kids are already going to have to share their father with us for the next four to possibly eight years. The least you can do is let their mother focus on some mothering. Geez Louise.It just seems mean and greedy to keep screeching "When is she going to DO SOMETHING!" She’s already doing things. I can’t help it that she’s not prancing around like Xena Warrior Princess to delight folks who want to see her knock heads around. I don’t know why these individuals don’t realize that her role is already revolutionary as she is the first black woman to be First Lady and she’s the first highly visible black woman I’ve ever seen or heard be praised so much for her femininity. Pardon moi if I enjoy this because I’m simply not used to it. I’ll repeat, let us have this moment in the girly-girl sun, crypto-feminists. We didn’t get this far just to start a pointless fight. I think the example she’s setting is good for all women … or at least wonderful for women of color and their children.

  5. *spitting out a string of profanities*Leave her the f*ck alone!It’s not good enough that she made her way thru Princeton and Harvard, is a wife to a busy politician who eventually became President, mother to two wonderful daughters, and a successful executive. Can she get a break? Hasn’t she already worked really hard up until this point in her life? Dammit, can she enjoy being "queen of the United States" ala Jon Stewart?I strenuously disagree with Erbe’s position. Everyone knows how successful, smart, and accomplished Michelle is. I really think most women in the United States loves how Michelle has performed as the First Lady. Most of us know that she does not have anything to prove. And, ahhh, no, this would not be a David Alxerod creation. Erbe must not really know the Obamas well. Not saying I do, but I pretty much hang on their every word as an admitted stan…if you pay attention to what Michelle has said (and even how she looks) she is thoroughly enjoying the role SHE HAS CUT OUT FOR HERSELF.Even Claire Huxtable worked full time. I had a friend who spent alot of time with both black and white upper class families. She though it was interesting how damn near all the black wives (and they were mothers) worked really hard regardless of how well off they were compared to their white counterparts, who for the most part were stay at home wifes/moms. It probably has alot to do with culture, but often, black women don’t have that choice.

  6. IMO this is just another case of feminist talking heads being hypocrites. I thought the feminist movement was for freedom of choice among women. I guess that only holds true if the feminest elite have given you permission and clearly Michelle Obama hasn’t gotten her clearance from them. Last time I checked, she has not signed some agreement with them to be their feminist warrior, so they truly need to STFU. They have no right to tell her how to live her life. Honestly, I can’t even take the opinions of anyone seriously that would somehow try to disparage someone for wanting to place the well-being of her children above all else. They should worry far more about how their are living their own sorry lives in accordance with their feminist principles than trying to control the lives of other women.

  7. I say Michelle do you, there are going to be a million people with just as many opinions trying to tell her what she needs or should do. ANd my vision of feminism was that a woman having the choice t do what she wants. My mom was a working woman and when she had my brother and I she made the CHOICE to stay at home and raise us, now were 24 and 26 and at the end of our high school years she again made the CHOICE to use the teaching degree she earned during the hours we were at school to go out and become a teacher.

  8. Co-sign with you all, especially you Snob and naturally Alise. No matter what these folks do, somebody has to talk some trash. And the white author of the US News Article, Bonnie Erbe who disagreed with Prof Harris-Lacewell is so typical of how so often many white people turn something not about them into something about them. Prof Harris-Lacewell said that MOST black women have always had to work, and that other women who were working class and poor women worked, but in her disagreement she has to point out that the women in her family always worked 1) not about you, Bonnie, 2)Prof Harris-Lacewell did point out that some white women HAD to work, 3) the gold standard for how white women were "supposed" to be up until the 1960’s and 70’s was to stay at home, no matter what your education, class etc; yes there were a handful of women before that who wroked b/c they wanted to not b/c they had to but that was also an extreme minority for lots of reasons. I get so mad when white feminists try to squeeze black women into their paradigm, but only when it suits something they want, not when it is something for us, or about us that doesn’t reflect on them. DAMN!

  9. I talked about some of these issues a few weeks ago when that fool Burt Prelutsky called Michelle Obama a "bitch". Check it out. And I tell everybody who will listen, and several who won’t, that if the Obama administration doesn’t accomplish a damn thing, their being there and being black and showing the world black that’s not an athlete or entertainer or babymama or babydaddy is mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned.

  10. yea I agree with you Danielle. I think the serious problem with Erbe’s assertion is that she falls back into using a white example. She focuses on the class realities of her foremothers and the not the race and class realities. She completely misses Harris-Lacewell’s point about race and class affecting Black women’s lives and how drastic Michelle’s role is from those popular depictions of them.

  11. Every woman in my family has had to work all of her adult life. The funny thing about the First Lady’s "Mom-in-Chief" thing wasn’t that my feminist mother was pissed she wasn’t working, it was how HAPPY my feminist mother and grandmother were that Mrs. Obama was taking the opportunity to do exactly what she wanted. My mom knows that she has to work because has no other choice; the elite feminist "womyn" types don’t fully understand what it means to be away from your children 50, 60, 70 hours a week just to keep food on the table. If they did, they would understand that seeing a woman who made herself a success and was able to reap the rewards of that success is an inspiration to working women, not something to criticize.

  12. She hasn’t even been in the White House a year. Let her get the kids settled in — and get herself settled in — before we expect her to take on the world. She’s a smart woman — and savvy — she’ll find the right time and place to become the first kick ass First Lady without people feeling like she’s usurping power (Did we learn nothing from Hillary?)Give it time.

  13. I’m in the minority among women of color (love that status) in that I think Erbe is dead-on. We all know that most of America is not ready for the type of woman Michelle Obama is as a First Lady, so compromises had to be made in order to avoid rocking the POTUS ship. Neither Michelle nor Barack are stupid, so they understood what they had to do in order to make this work, but it still bothers me tremendously that the sista she has been throughout their marriage and the mother she has been to her two daughters is not the image that America could accept from its First Lady. Changes had to be made.And no one is attacking her here! People are just talking about the racial and gender biases that still exist that cause this situation in the first place. That is where the animus is being laid.Peace!

  14. You know, I don’t appreciate this notion that Michelle has to get out and champion certain causes and initiatives so fast and aggressively b/c she’s a tough, educated women. Sure, if she didn’t have children, then perhaps you’d warrant more input. But this lady has two, very young Black daughters in the public eye, a first in their arena – they need her undivided attention and support. And given the monumental tasks her husband now endures, I wouldn’t gripe one bit. This is uncharted territory for America and for the world. None of us are in any moral or legal position to tell this grown woman, who has worked her entire life, what and when she should do… whatever! I mean, how arrogant have we become? If you want certain topics explored with much fervidity, then you become First Lady. But until that day comes, stop the dictating and get off her ass. She’s doing exactly what needs to be done at the moment. And as all First Ladies’ prior, Michelle will no doubt evolve in this role. Plus why is it so tremendously difficult to accept the reality of Michelle being a soft, easygoing kind of woman? They aren’t mutually exclusive; we can be both! What is up with this ‘it’s an Axelrod creation’ talking point? Dang, I guess every bit of the Obamas, every newly discovered trait, does not tell us they are multifaceted human beings, but ‘Axelrod creations.’ Yeah, that’s it. *looks around* I will simply reject any excessive critiques of Michelle this early, especially ones as utterly misguided as these.

  15. I agree with the comments re: Michelle do you & putting family first by her own choice.If you look at the role she is playing she IS being everything the feminists want her to be. She is an modern, accomplished, complex, loving and SUPPORTIVE wife, mother and businesswoman.If you don’t see that in her Elmo promo or her Listening Tour, you’re missing the brilliance in her approach. It’s not like she’s posted up in the Lincoln bedroom poppin bon bons & watching soap operas all day. Michelle doesn’t need a hammer to drive home a point about what women are capable of doing for themselves and others.A strong woman walking & talking love while allowing others to love her is exactly the example we need in a FLOTUS!!*dusting off a trite phrase * You GO Girl!

  16. If Michelle’s playing the role that she wants to, good for her. I’m a Black feminist, and I don’t see any need to chose. And choice is what it’s about to me. Women should have a full range of options. And whether a women wants to be a housewife, or a neuroscientist, I support that. As long as the decision is coming from a healthy desire, and the women has a sense of autonomy, then I’m all for it.

  17. @Liana .. .clearly you missed Michelle’s article in Essence a few years ago. When asked how she felt about taking a leave from her job to start the campaign, she responded: women can’t do everythingj can’t always "have it all" . You have to adjust your lives to do what is best for your family. This was before Obama was the nominee, it was before he won Iowa. Check it out. She’s always maintained that her girls come first. Why is it so hard for mainstream feminists to accept that some women REALLY want to mother and nurture a family. For Michelle its not about being a career woman. Perhaps this is because she had a career for nearly 10 years before she became a mother. Criticizing her for doing what’s best for HER family is short-sighted and selfish.

  18. Someone needs to read Obama’s book ‘Audacity of hope’. He devoted a whole chapter to this point and focused a great deal on Michelle’s feelings on the subject. The main issue was her resentment at being forced to basically financially support the family as the main wage earner due to his political ambitions. Despite wanting success in her career, she also had the very strong maternal urge to devote more time to her children and desperately wanted to be the kind of stay at home mom, her own mother had been for her. So Snob is right here, Michelle is basically living her dream right now, as well as the African American woman’s dream, feminist or not.

  19. I believe that First Lady Michelle Obama is deliberatel trying to scale herself back. She’s no fool, she is well aware of the stereotypes of black women. She is doing what she has to do for her family. She can’t be all things to all people. She is already a wonderful example for girls, an ivy league educated beautiful woman of value and worth.

  20. Also she is taking on some pretty non controversial issues. She is being a traditional First Lady, planting the garden and stressing healthy eating and excercise. She is doing her job exceptionally. What else do people want from her? Is she not still a wife and a mother? The wife of the President of the United States of America, and the mother of two vulnerable little girls.

  21. First Lady Michelle Obama is not a politician and has not expressed any desire to be a politician. Hillary Clinton was always kind of politically active. Stop comparing the two women, First Lady Michelle Obama is her own woman she can’t be Hillary or Jackie or Eleanor, all she can be is herself, Michelle Obama.

  22. This is the money quote: "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."Feminism is about having a choice, and at this point in my life after busting my hump to beindependent and as good a provider for myself as any man could be, I’m tired. If I were Michelle Obama and I didn’t have to work and could just go be beautiful, glamorous and make a difference for people every day, I’d be doing the same thing. The fact that she’s not politically ambitious herself, is hardly a crime.She can do whatever she wants. She has in a sense, hit the lottery. People who go back to work after hitting the lottery don’t make any sense to me. Michelle is just living her life as if she hit the lotto, cuz she did.

  23. They have two young children. I keep on asking…what the hell CAUSE do they think is more important than rearing her children right now? I want to know what’s more important that she could shelve the kids onto the help and trot across the country. Uh huh. it’s not like Michelle is just sitting around doing nothing. do ya think, after carrying the family financially on her back UNTIL Barack’s books sold..that maybe, just maybe, she’s earned the ‘ rest’.though I believe calling being First Lady ‘ rest’ a ridiculous notion indeed. Erbe needs to get to stepping. Michelle Obama is NOT going to live out some frustrated HIllary fantasy that these women seem to have.

  24. It amazes me that critics are unwilling or unable to see the power that "mother" holds. It is not a passive "role" crafted by spin doctors that someone then performs. Remember, Michele has chosen to present herself to us as ‘Mom in Chief" rather than First Lady. And given the history of the term and role of "lady" in our American context and culture, and the passivity and constrictions that it implies (as well as its history of excluding black women), I fully understand and applaud Obama’s choice to inhabit the very powerful and empowering "role" of mother.

  25. I agree with the majority of the previous posters. IMHO, feminists really don’t see the value in childrearing. It is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING A WOMAN CAN DO! I am sorry if that offends, but Michelle staying home to raise her two young daughters is vitally more important than perpetuating the feminist myth that women can and should "have it all." She doesn’t feel the need to tow anyone’s party line, and I appreciate her for it. As a black women who wants to stay at home to raise her kids (when I get married and have them), I have had women tell me that my desire is a "smack in the face" of the feminist movement. Sorry, but I don’t live for movements, I live for me. And when I do have a family, I will live for them. That is what CHOICE is all about… making an autonomous decision that is the best for you and the ones you love.

  26. For the hand that rocks the cradleIs the hand that rules the world. — William Ross WallaceI don’t think Michelle Obama is in the least bit "acting" nor do I think she give’s a shit about what anyone thinks of her doing what she needs to do to raise her girls. Plus, she doesn’t get paid to be the "First Lady" so what does anyone really have to say that could possibly matter to her — besides Barack and Mrs. Robinson? Why are expectations different for her than, say, for Laura Bush? Roslyn Carter? Folks told Hillary Clinton to go sit down somewhere — and she HAD a law degree.

  27. I’m so proud of Michelle Obama and I think it’s great that she is the Mom in Chief. My Aunt and Uncle, who are black, live in an upper middle class mostly white neighborhood. My Aunt told me that off all the wives on there street she is the only one that has to work. The rest who are white are stay at home moms. So the option of staying at home has never really been available to black women and still isn’t available to most of us now. I think white feminists need to acknowledge that we as black women have always had to work and raise children, it’s never been a matter of choice for us, like it is for them. So that fact that Michelle Obama can stay at home with her girls and take care of the house and her husband is revolutionary for us as black women.

  28. Personally, I like Michelle Obama’s whole "Mom-in-Chief" visage. Her husband has got a helluva job, and it is probably comforting and soothing to him that she’s holding him down by keeping his girls safe, happy, and healthy. Besides, we don’t know what goes on behind closed bedroom doors. Michelle Obama could be influencing Barck’s policies by being his first sounding board. They have a balance that works. I think what is important for feminists to focus on is that she chose this role and isn’t that what matters?With that said, I want to smoke the retroactive crack! You can’t show me enough pictures of Michelle Obama dressed to the nines, looking so stylish, sophisticated, and proud next to President Barack. She’s not afraid to shine. Plus, her hugging her kids. LURVE IT. I have two little girls, and it just touches me.

  29. She has two young children. The feminist movement was about choice.If she can afford not to work outside "the home" people need to respect that. I’m single and have no children but I’m an aunt, a daughter and a sister and have close friends with children. Raising children is one of the toughest jobs in the world. She IS working and folks need to back the fuck off.

  30. I agree that it’s unfair and just mean for people to be harping that Michelle Obama should have a full-time job and "do something" just because she had a good education. It’s ridiculous to argue that she somehow owes it to working women everywhere (which I’ve read people have said) to have some job outside of the White House. If she were to do that, everything that she did in her "job" would reflect on the President. Any effect she had on policy would inflame the millions who did not elect her to an office. After all, it is her husband who was elected by the populace. Mrs. Obama is the wife of the President, chosen by him and him alone. The President would have to spend the first half of every press conference answering questions about Mrs. Obama’s activities. It would be ridiculous. I wish that people would stop criticizing her for giving herself primarily to caring for her children, who are small, and still need her. Although their grandmother is available to them (and that’s a great thing), the effect of one’s own mother on one’s life cannot be underestimated. Those two girls deserve to have a mother who is present, engaged, and focused on them for the short time they are dependent on her. In the blink of an eye Malia and Sasha Obama will be away at college and on their own. Mrs. Obama deserves to enjoy her time with her children. She should not have to give that up to please anyone. Mrs. Obama is doing a fantastic job. I know she will keep up the good work she is doing. She makes all of us look better.

  31. These damed critical white women will not be satisfied until Michelle starts disrepecting and being unsupportive towards her black husband . If Clinton had won, they would feel that Bill should be the one to handle any family issues so that Hil could be about the business of the presidency. I smell HATE!

  32. These damed critical white women will not be satisfied until Michelle starts disrepecting and being unsupportive towards her black husband . If Clinton had won, they would feel that Bill should be the one to handle any family issues so that Hil could be about the business of the presidency. I smell HATE!

  33. You are all brilliantly intelligent, eloquent with your words and express everything I can hope to say about the matter. Mrs. Obama just needs to visit Danielle’s site to understand the support she has (if she doesn’t already know). Erbe and women like her can go straight to h—, Mrs. Obama is not in the white house to please Erbe and others like her. She is not there to make a statement. Good things comes to those who wait. Mrs. Obama is assessing as she is taking care of her daughters. We already know what she is passionate about she has already told us, i.e. her daughters, military families and the quality of schools in the DC area. She will address those matters more publicly when the time arises. We can all agree that she is just simply not laying around doing nothing. She is woman extraordinaire and one I chose to be my exampler. She’s doing great things. She will do great things, I know it. Danielle, I love your site.

  34. Really loved this post and enjoyed reading the comments. Mr. Obama’s politics are way to centrist for me, but I wanted Mr. and Mrs. Obama in the White House because of what their presence would do for the self-image and self-esteem of people of African descent globally. They have not disappointed. They are such an AMAZING couple and she has been flawless in her role as First Lady.

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