Michelle Obama, Mom-in-Chief

Over at AntiRacistParent, editor Tami Winfrey Harris addresses some feminists’ criticism of the “momification” of Michelle Obama,  including the “assurance” last year from the Obama campaign that “[Mrs. Obama] is not interested in shaping policy or reserving a seat for herself at her husband’s decision-making table. She prefers, at least for now, to focus on easing the transition for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7— getting them in new schools, settled and comfortable with a new way of life.”

Tami responds:

[This] point of view echoes that of many of my white feminist sisters. I’ve read similar posts across the blogosphere. The problem is that this point of view imposes the white female experience on women of color, specifically in this case, black women.

Black women have never been viewed as primarily mothers of our OWN children. (ARP columnist Deesha Philyaw wrote an excellent article for Bitch magazine about the invisibility of black mothers in books and media about parenting.) When it was thought that women (read: white women) were too delicate of mind and body to work hard in and outside of the home, black women were largely excluded from that bit of sexism. We were the work horses.

Our culture is comfortable with black women working. In pop culture, we pop up as police women and judges and attorneys and professional caretakers, etc. But whenever we pop up, we rarely are given real lives outside of our work. The love of significant others or children or friends is usually reserved for the “ideal” woman.

Also, when it comes to real life choices, fewer black women, of any social strata, are able or expected to make the choice to be full-time mothers, regardless of what they might want to do.

Sexism subjects women to many tyrannies, but intersectionality ensures that all women are not subjected to the same ones. That America recognizes Michelle Obama as the black mother of black children, that she is comfortable and able to make the personal decision to choose motherhood for a time, I think, is a good thing. It represents a step outside of the stereotype trifecta of Mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel that is the black woman’s burden.

I agree with Tami.  Further, while I do lament the media’s shift in focus from Michelle Obama: Is She a Scary Fist-Bumping Black Nationalist [1] to Michelle Obama: OMG Did You See That Travesty of a Dress She Wore on Election Night??–I don’t view the focus on Michelle Obama: Mother as prohibitive of her considerable influence, present and future, public and private, in other spheres, including as the closest advisor to the president (as she is known to be)–regardless of the “spin” the Obama campaign felt the need to put on the issue.  I take that “at least for now” at face value, and I take it to mean that she’s thoughtful about her role, and possibly even ambivalent on work-family issues, as she has expressed in previous interviews.  But “ambivalent” isn’t the same thing as dissatisfied, disenfranchised, or diminished.

Why shouldn’t her focus, upon arriving in Washington, have been on getting her children settled in?  Should she have let a First Nanny do it instead?  Oops, that would be her own mother!  But of course, Mrs. Obama didn’t win any Mother of the Year Awards from the nasty commenters here for having her mother live in the White House in the first place, as a caregiver for Sasha and Malia.

The Salon “momification” article, by Rebecca Traister, written just days after the election, also noted:

It’s Michelle’s job [to resituate the kids in Washington] because Daddy is going to be the president, and he has to save the country and the world from an economic crisis and war, and so he might be too busy to come check out the new schools and decorate their rooms and help with the dog. But the fact is, he seems to be a pretty good dad, and I bet he will do some of that stuff anyway. What rankles is the smooth and unquestioning assumptions by the media that the fallback position is to assign all those duties to Michelle.[emphasis mine]

Again, I do find the media’s shift on Michelle Obama and these assumptions about her role to be problematic, and so I agree with Traister on that point.  But I don’t share her concern about Mrs. Obama’s own “flogging” of the “cheerily unthreatening” title of “mom-in-chief.”  This doesn’t mean that’s all she considers herself to be, but even if she did–so what? It’s a valid choice, one I can’t imagine she was bullied into making, so if she likes it, I love it.

More recently, Mrs. Obama caught flak from veteran fashion houses for big-upping up-and-coming designers and wearing J. Crew–and for (gasp!) wearing a sweater to meet the Queen of England. Which just goes to show that regardless of how meaningless or meaningful the issue, she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. My guess is that she knows this and isn’t overly concerned about fitting into any of the ideological (or couture-related) boxes that others would design for her.

[1]This controversial view at least attributed some power and depth to her.

by Deesha Philyaw
View profile »

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

2 Comments Have Been Posted

The one thing that urks me a

The one thing that urks me a little about the momification of Michelle Obama is the implicit idea that in taking a more traditional mom role in the white house, she vows not to repeat the waking nightmare that was Hilary Clinton's role in the Clinton administration. Basically, I worry about the ways the Obama adminstration has used or might use Michelle's choices to pander to conservatives and Hilary haters. I don't want to see one woman's choices used against another woman.
Generally speaking, though, I think Michelle Obama can do no wrong. Thanks for this post and for sharing Tami Whinfrey Harris' comments.

Add new comment