With Mother’s Day approaching I want to think about Michelle Obama’s assertion that her primary role as First Lady is "Mom-in-Chief."
Many progressive feminists were distressed with Michelle’s assertion of motherhood as her primary role. They hoped she would seek a more aggressive policy agenda. After all Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She spent her career as an effective advocate for urban communities in their fraught relationship with powerful institutions. She is smart, capable, and independent. She maintained her own career and ambitions throughout Barack’s early political career and even during his election to the U.S. Senate.
Truth is, some of us who were in the orbit of the Obamas ten years ago believed Michelle, not Barack, was the real star of the couple. So while I don’t think anyone expected her to commute to a 9-to-5 job in D.C; many hoped that she would take on an independent political role in the Obama administration.
Instead, Michelle has crafted a more traditional role for herself. She is highly visible, but she has taken on relatively safe issues like childhood literacy, advocacy for women and girls, and support of military families. Even her White House garden is framed more as an initiative for healthy eating and quality family meals than as a statement of commitment to local foods as an effort against global climate change.
Early in the primaries Michelle’s gentle teasing of her "rock star" husband made him seem more human and led many to believe that the Obamas would be models for gender equity in the White House. While the mutual respect between the couple remains evident, these days Michelle is more frequently photographed with her head on Barack’s shoulder, grasping his hand at public events, or evading reporters by stealing brief, romantic walks on the White House grounds. The outspoken Michelle Obama that made many bristle with anxiety during the campaign has been replaced by a woman who makes us collectively say, "aaaaahhhhh" when we see her with her husband, children, and even her new dog.
Over the past several months I have received many press inquiries from reporters and scholars who are anxious about the ascendance of this kinder, gentler Michelle Obama. They worry that Michelle is being manufactured and handled in a way that thwarts her authenticity and undermines the efforts of feminist movements committed to the notion that women can and should have both family and career.
This is a potentially fair criticism, but I want to complicate this easy narrative a bit by encouraging us to remember that as an African American woman the stereotypes against which Michelle is struggling are distinct from those that seek to limit and inhibit white women.
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 the shouldered the extreme burden of attempting to effectively parent while providing financially for their families. Black 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 black women have typically worked as teachers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and professionals. At every level of household income and at every point in American history, black women have been much more likely to engage in paid labor than their white counterparts. Even Claire Huxtable worked full time!
So when Michelle 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 black women’s role in the family and representing a different image of black women than we are used to encountering in this country.
As mom-in-chief Michelle Obama also subverts a deep, powerful, and old public discourse on black women as bad mothers. Enslaved black women had no control over their own children. Their sons and daughters could be sold away from them without their consent, or brutally disciplined without their protection. So when a black woman claims public ownership of her children she helps rewrite that ugly history.
In the modern era, black mothers have been publicly shamed as crack mothers, welfare queens, and matriarchs. Black single motherhood is blamed for all manner of social ills from crime to drugs to social disorder. And black mothers are often represented in popular culture and the public imagination as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculates their potential male partners and destroys their children’s future opportunities. These public images of black motherhood encourage the state not to assist black mothers as women doing the best they can in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.
Michelle Obama is an important corrective to this distorted view of black motherhood. She and her own mother, Grandma Robinson, are kind, devoted, loving, and firm black mothers who challenge the negative images that dominate the public discourse on black motherhood.
There is a potential danger here. Michelle Obama’s public persona of traditionalism could be used as a discursive weapon against women who do not conform to this domestic ideal. The majority of black mothers are working women who struggle to raise their children without husbands and often without adequate financial support from partners or the state. It would be easy to use the Obamas to reassert that black women’s salvation can be found in submission to patriarchy. This is a narrative that could undercut support for public policies focused on creation of a just and equal political and economic structure, by focusing us instead on"marriage" and "family values" as solutions to structural barriers facing black communities. But these conservative discourses have never needed any particular excuse to exist. They have been the dominant frame for discussions of racial inequality for nearly 40 years, long before Michelle Obama began to rewrite the script on black motherhood.
Therefore, despite that rhetorical dangers, I must admit to reveling in Michelle Obama as mom-in-chief. I am a divorced, single mother who adores my work, but I am moved to see a black woman in a loving, egalitarian marriage who finds herself enjoying the privilege of focusing on her children and serving her country. There is something powerful, subversive, and new in Michelle Obama’s traditionalism.
On this Mother’s Day I will celebrate my sisters, my aunts, my mother, and my friends who are mothers. Some of these women are white and some are black. Each woman was shaped by the powerful social, political, and economic forces that framed her life and her choices as a parent. I celebrate the creative ways they responded to those challenges and how their choices made possible the world I now encounter as a woman and mother. This year I will also celebrate Michelle Obama and the new world of possibilities that she creates by her dignified embrace of her role as "mom-in-chief."