Columnist Bonnie Erbe of “why isn’t the First Lady kicking ass and taking names already” fame is still complaining. Most recently she shot down professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s argument that Michelle Obama’s domestic and ceremonial role as First Lady was already a revolution for black women considering how we’ve been treated and portrayed historically — which would be not as women, let alone human, at all.
But let’s listen to what Erbe had to say this time. (Sigh)
First lady Michelle Obama could be making history. She could take giant steps to give women and women of color more power in society and in the workplace. Instead, she self-selected the title of Mom-in-Chief and told Time Magazine, she stays out of public policy.
This attitude of hers is sad, very sad. I know it’s constructed by the Obama public relations types—who want to tone down this brilliant, eminently qualified career woman. This new quote in particular reminds me of an all-time clunker from Barbara Bush who told the media when her husband was president she just, “went her own dumb way” and stayed out of politics.
What is it with these women? Or more importantly, what is with American society that it cannot accept a working spouse first lady? Is that so threatening it causes immediate public fear and dislike? If the answer is yes, and I fear it is, it reconfirms my belief during the last election attitudes toward race moved markedly forward, but gender-bias was allowed to remain politically correct.
Once again, Erbe continues to basically ignore the bigger picture or get over her narrow view of feminism or even acknowledge the arguments of black women and feminists who do find Michelle’s role revolutionary because of its novelty and her background.
More after the jump.
Image-wise, black women have Mammies and Sapphires and … not … much … in-between. And then there’s reality that a black woman working isn’t exactly new in the black community that she just seems to want to discount no matter how many ways you explain it.
In 1910, the government reported that a majority of black women worked outside the home; white women passed that milestone only in the past 20 years, census statistics show. (Washington Post)
The American historical record shows that Black women heve been part of the American work force longer than any other group of women in the United States. Though consistently undereducated, underemployed, and underpaid, these women have endured and, in doing so, have created strategies for survival and change that have given them ‘cultural flexibility’ in the areas of socialization patterns for male and female children; interpersonal, kinship and marital relations; and professional and community involvement. The effects of both institutionalized racism and sexism on women’s economic and personal choices are explored as well as the long range effect of labor market participation on family and community life. (Yolanda T. Moses, “Black American Women and Work“)
(In 1900) Black married women were much more likely to be gainfully employed than were white married women. About one-quarter of African American married women were in the labor force at any one time, eight times the share of U.S.-born white married women. Among Married women over the age of 65, one-quarter of African American women were in the labor force as well, five times the share for white women. (“Race, Gender and Work“)
Do you know how many black stay-at-home moms I knew growing up? One. Mine. Some of those black mothers had careers because they loved them. A majority had them because without two incomes the family would have been in dire straits. My grandmother picked cotton. Her sisters cleaned houses. My other grandmother cleaned houses. My all my aunts worked. I have great-aunts who were domestics and school teachers. My mom is like the weirdo who, due to my father’s very good job as an engineer and later in management for what was then McDonnell Douglas, was able to stay at home and make sure we were taken care of completely.
This was a luxury that, sadly, not all black women had a choice in affording. See, choice was non-existent. Work or don’t eat was the option for the majority of black women due to racism that kept black men from being able to get high paying jobs. You cannot compare the scars of institutionalized racism that kept everyone down regardless of educational background and geography to the unfairness of the class system which is what often impacted white women the most. As I said in an earlier post, white women and black women have very different image problems. Like, the complete opposite, and it seems extremely selfish to demand the First Lady to fulfill whatever your narrow view of what a feminist looks like.
My mom is a feminist. She raised three feminists. All while WHILE WORKING AT HOME. These things are not mutually exclusive. She’d worked since she was 10 years old and was the oldest of nine children. Believe me, she did not find this work liberating as this work was never denied to her because of her gender. As the family had no desire to starve, everyone regardless of gender was expected to work. There was nothing special about my mother being born a girl that perculded her from hard labor, picking cotton, cooking, cleaning and other work. She was not seen as too weak or too dumb in any task. It was a matter of survival.
She grew up and worked to put herself through college and received a degree in education, then went on to work as a school teacher until she started having children. Don’t tell my mother she’s an awful person because at 26, when she had my oldest sister, she’d already been working and/or partially starving for 16 years and she was tired. Don’t tell her she’s not living up to a feminist ideal just because she wanted to love her family. Don’t tell her she let all of womanhood down because when her husband told her that as long as they weren’t starving she could stay at home and that she relished in having a CHOICE for the first time in her life between work and that same starvation. That my father had a good job and was good with money and that she too was intelligent and good at saving and that together they were an awesome team who got farther and did more than their hardworking, but “Jim Crow” hampered parents.
Don’t sit there and tell me that this was a bad thing. Don’t sit there and tell me the First Lady is committing some crime by putting her daughters first and focusing on the ceremonial aspects of her role. She’s a First Lady. Not a politician, or a governor, or a senator. The role doesn’t REQUIRE you do do anything really, but be a good hostess. If you do anything more than that, that’s just bonus. And she is doing bonus. I mean, I honestly don’t know what Erbe wants the First Lady to do. Be pushy in a policy role that no one elected her to? Because that was half the problem with Hillary Clinton. As exemplary as she was, NO ONE ELECTED HER TO RUN ANYTHING (back in 1992). That was part of the pushback. It was understandable for her to be a leader when she actually got elected to the senate. She had votes behind her. But to just unceremoniously assume that you should have your very public seat at the table when you weren’t voted or appointed to be there is silly. This all seems like whininess on the part that because there isn’t a woman in a position of power equal to the president, you want the First Lady to jerry-rig her ceremonial, spousal role to fulfill this female power position vacuum.
But the most offensive thing to me about Erbe’s statements is that she assumes what Michelle Obama is doing is bad for all women, including women of color, which makes me wonder what this woman thinks the impact of the First Lady’s role is actually having on people. Yes, hearing a black woman talking about being a mom to her kids is must awful for all those black and brown women used to being dehumanized in the press. That is so hurtful to women of color! (Who often have jobs and degrees out of necessity, not because we thought it was really, really cool and grrl power and shit.) Why? I’m in pain over it RIGHT NOW! It bothers me SO MUCH to see her give commencement speeches and host guests at the White House and be fawned over by the public. That is just AWFUL for my self-esteem! All she did was go to an Ivy League school and be the primary wage-earner until her husband became president and then chose to focus on her family. My God. Think of how that will affect all the little black girls out there. What will they think?
You know? Besides, look at the smart, tall woman who gets to be First Lady and loves her husband and kids! NIGHTMARISH! AWFUL! Look! She’s hugging children and reading books. Anti-woman! That is sooo anti-woman!
I don’t think this would bother me as much if it weren’t for the fact Erbe is just refusing to see this from the point-of-view of the average black woman and her family. I’m fine with her wanting, wishing for some power grabbing, dynamo, but to basically dismiss the fact that black women and white women are different in how working outside the home is viewed — you know? Revolutionary versus “I’ve been working since I got off the damn boat, what’s so AWESOME about it?” — is one of the main reasons why black feminists and white feminists sometimes clash. You know? The overall insensitivity factor. There is this refusal to acknowledge that we went through some different kind of shit. Some dehumanizing, robbed of your femininity, “you’re not actually a woman” type shit.
I suggest she read some Sojourner Truth (or hell, some Alice Walker) and come back again.