In the opening moments of her second turn at history, as Michelle Obama waves at celebrants along Pennsylvania Avenue, Americans will clamor to see the first lady, who remains one of the most popular public figures in the country. In the most recent poll, fully 73 percent said they approve of the way she is handling her job.
But a significant group of Americans — feminist Americans — have been vocally disappointed with her choices and feel let down by her example.
In 2008, when Obama announced her intention to be “mom-in-chief,” many feminists decried her decision to give up her career and said she had been victimized by her husband’s choices. She was regarded as one of the women feminist Linda Hirshman described as “letting down the team.”
But most black feminists and writers had a different view. Let the sister get settled, they said. Give her a minute to do a head count. And if she wanted to focus on motherhood, for black women that was more than fine. It was arguably revolutionary, because black women were long denied the right — or lacked the means — to simply care for their own.
As she begins another four years in the White House, the nation’s feminists are divided about the “work” Obama has done, and the work they’d like to see her do.
This split has bitter historic roots. It surfaced during the suffrage movement, when white women suggested their votes could counter those of “the darker races,” and again in the 1970s, when black feminists broke away over the white middle-class focus of “women’s lib.”
Now, with an African American woman in the White House, these differences have rushed back to the fore.
Last year, after Obama and Ann Romney submitted recipes for a cookie contest, Hirshman told The Washington Post that Obama’s “first mom, gardener thing” is “silly.” Now, Hirshman says, “I’ve kind of lost interest in Michelle Obama. She was trapped by assumptions about race and had limited room to maneuver. Whether that was a welcome choice or she had no choice, I will never know. It’s very difficult to envision her as running for senator from the state of Illinois as you did with Hillary Clinton running for senator from the state of New York.”
“Are fashion and body-toning tips all we can expect from one of the most highly educated First Ladies in history?” asked author Leslie Morgan Steiner in an online column last January. She said she’d “read enough bland dogma on home-grown vegetables and aerobic exercise to last me several lifetimes.”
Steiner contended Obama probably had little leeway. “I’m sure there is immense pressure — from political advisors, the black community, her husband, the watching world — to play her role as First Black Lady on the safe side.”
Feminist discontent with the first lady spiked again last summer at the Democratic National Convention, after she called her daughters “the heart of my heart and the center of my world.” She then repeated her feminist crazy-maker: “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’ ”
“Why does mom-in-chief have to be the most important thing this strong, vibrant woman tells us about herself as she flexes the strange but considerable power of the office of first lady?” Emily Bazelon asked on Slate.com.
“Judging by Michelle Obama’s speech, feminism is dead to the Democratic party, ” Lilith Dornhuber wrote on a feminist Web site’s community forum.
Author Katie Roiphe, who says she has had her own battles with fellow white feminists, calls these complaints misplaced. “I think there’s a certain unconstructive scrutiny going on in this certain population of white feminists on the blogosphere,” Roiphe says. “It’s such a naive definition of power to say that the first lady is not a working woman.”
This take — that Obama doesn’t exercise agency in her choices, that her anti-obesity, healthy-eating issues lack gravity, or that she’s not working — is one that many minority feminists and writers of color find ahistorical. They join the Michelle conversation from a different center and land on wildly different points.
By necessity and by choice, a majority of black women have been working outside the home at least since the census began keeping track of their labor in 1972. There has never been a national effort to keep black women at home, caring sweetly for their children. They have always worked, and their work has never been a separate thing from their mothering.
“Feminists who wish that Obama would strike a blow for feminism and against stereotyped roles of women, too easily forget that all women are not burdened by the same stereotypes,” wrote Tami Winfrey Harris in a September article, “A Black Mom-in-Chief is Revolutionary: What White Feminists Get Wrong about Michelle Obama,” for the online magazine Clutch.