Michelle Obama, First Feminist, Takes on ‘Women’s Issues’—Carefully

Michelle Obama, First Feminist, Takes on ‘Women’s Issues’—Carefully

Michelle Obama, First Feminist, Takes on ‘Women’s Issues’—Carefully

The First Lady headlined an event highlighting the struggles of working mothers—but she pulled punches on the country’s failure to ensure childcare and family leave.


I was among more than 1,500 people who braved the 102-degree heat in D.C. Thursday afternoon to hear what Michelle Obama had to say about work-family issues and other matters close to women’s hearts. The occasion was, officially, the 40th anniversary of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a major player in health care, paid leave, and workplace flexibility advocacy. But the event felt more rock concert than fundraiser when the first lady took the stage, dressed in hot pink and bangles. The audience immediately stood, craning our necks to catch sight of the woman who is to many a feminist megastar. The eruption of adulation in the giant ballroom made my eyes tear.

The First Lady spoke warmly and respectfully of the women’s movement. Referring to 1971, when she was just seven and the National Partnership was founded, Obama noted that “The ceiling wasn’t just glass back then, it was more like concrete.” She lamented the fact that Richard Nixon had no women in his cabinet, and praised a law against pregnancy discrimination that was passed in 1978.

But it was more what came out of her mouth that gave them impression that Michelle Obama is the First Feminist. She exuded the confidence of a woman who feels secure in – and beyond – her place of power. Adept at discussing legislation and cultural movements, she was just as comfortable throwing in a joke about polyester. (“Tough times,” she noted drily of the seventies-era obsession with the fabric.) Obama seemed to embody a notion at the center of feminism: that women can be not just intelligent and powerful, but at ease with that, too.

Admittedly, some of how I perceive the First Lady comes from filling in the blanks, of which there are many. In this polarized political moment, there are clearly many topics she has been advised to avoid. Though appearing at an event for a pro-choice organization – especially one at which the director, Debra Ness, decried “the vicious attack on women’s health care” – is a statement in itself, Obama herself didn’t mention reproductive health issues in her remarks. Nor did she draw attention to the huge failures of our country to provide relief on the work/family front, or the obstacles the administration faces in trying to fix them—except to say there’s still a lot of work to be done. I might have imagined it, but I thought I saw a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she made the understatement.

Rumor has it that in the early days of President Obama’s administration, Michelle Obama planned to take on the work-family balance—including affordable childcare and mandated paid sick leave—as her Big Issue. But childhood obesity won out, and since Barack took office Michelle has launched “Let’s Move!” a campaign to eliminate childhood obesity by the next generation, creating a White House garden and touring schools to promote healthy eating. Watching her hoola-hoop with kids from local schools, you get the feeling that Obama could look dignified doing pretty much anything. And her efforts are paying off. In December, a bill to make school lunches more nutritious and more accessible—one she supported—passed, and President Obama signed it into law.

Presumably food was judged the less controversial issue. Though House Republicans – and Rush Limbaugh – have managed to find plenty to mock and quibble with on the matter of nutrition, focusing on childhood obesity allows Obama to remain motherly – and thus safely within the American comfort zone for acceptable First Lady policy initiatives. Focusing her advocacy on issues related to women’s equality, such as guaranteed sick leave to care for family members, on the other hand, could get a first lady into trouble. Remember when Hillary Clinton had to bake cookies to stave off outrage about her interest in weighty policy issues?

In truth, though the work/family balance is often categorized as a “women’s issue,” the problems of caring for families weigh on men, too. And the policy solutions that would better enable women to care for their families are gender-neutral, too. Though “women’s organizations” such as the National Partnership have been at the forefront of the push for paid sick days, for instance, the policy would benefit all workers. Similarly, leave laws – whether paid family leave or parental leave – apply to both men and women, though they’re often perceived as benefiting only mothers.

On both paid sick days and family leave, we’ve suffered major disappointments during the Obama years. Before Obama took office, a national paid sick days law seemed poised to pass. Back when Bush was the president, he was the big obstacle to its passage. But, though Connecticut just became the first state to approve its own bill, the national proposal wound up tabled after Obama took office. It was recently reintroduced by Tom Harkin in the Senate and Rosa DeLauro in the House, but has little chance of surviving this Congress. Meanwhile, money the president included in last year’s budget to help states implement paid family leave programs still hasn’t been allocated – and might very well not survive the next round of budget compromises.

The main obstacle to progress is Republican opposition. And given that opposition, there has been a surprising amount of success. Most notably, health reform passed which helps women and mothers, who are disproportionately uninsured,get health coverage. So did the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which extended the period in which a woman – or man – can file an equal-pay lawsuit, and which Obama signed upon entering office. The White House also created a Forum on Workplace Flexibility and another on Women and Girls.

Still, it’s not the revolution that seemed possible during the campaign. And I can’t help but imagine how much more progress we might have made if Michelle Obama had been able to unleash her formidable power on issues central to women’s equality and workplace fairness.

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