There’s oh so many reasons to hate the phrase “mom-in-chief," the highly criticized phrase that cropped up in the end of Michelle Obama’s otherwise well-received speech Tuesday night. Let’s start with the most obvious, which is it’s yet another reminder that even amongst liberals in the 21st century, women still have to reassure the public that just because they’re independent doesn’t mean they don’t love their children. It’s also another example of how women are still expected to define themselves not by their accomplishments in the world, but by their relationships to other people, in a way men are never expected to do. As Kerry Howley at XX Factor noted, “mom-in-chief” invokes the image of Michelle Obama as “ready to lead legions of subservient moms to do battle against producers of unhealthy snacks.” It adds an extra layer of insult to women’s dignity: Apparently, mother sounds too powerful for sensitive ears, and has to be softened up with mom. If this ship doesn’t get turned around soon, we’ll be hearing grown women call themselves mommy in public, so as not to be viewed as emasculating, radical feminists.
What made the phrase stand out especially in this speech is that, by and large, it was a speech that avoided the usual “I’m just a wife and mother” pabulum expected of First Ladies. Obama spoke of dating her husband and raising her family, but she also spoke of her struggles to get through college, used terms like “glass ceiling," and expressed support for gay marriage, federal efforts to make college affordable, universal health care, and feminist values like the right to choose. Right before she used “mom-in-chief,” her speech seemed to be going in an entirely different direction. "And I say all of this tonight not just as first lady … and not just as a wife."
The next logical thing for her to say was, “But also as a citizen, because [fill in one more push for why Barack Obama will perform well as President for four more years].” Instead, she finished her speech by talking about herself as the “mom-in-chief”—in contrast, of course, to her husband’s role as commander-in-chief—and sending a bunch of disappointed feminists straight to Twitter to sigh about how a woman as accomplished as Michelle Obama still has to identify as a mom first in order to avoid offending the easily emasculated.
But I do not blame Michelle Obama for this, not one bit. On the contrary, she did a remarkable thing overall with her speech, continuing, as Hillary Clinton did before her, to push back against the strict boundaries of what wives are allowed to be and do. Politicians—and First Ladies are politicians, even if we officially fail to recognize that—must stay within strict bounds established by society, or else they cannot survive long as public servants. Obama resorting to the phrase “mom-in-chief” says less about her and more about the world she works in, one that may have more room for women to be ambitious and educated, so long as we accept that our primary purpose in life is to be support staff to our families.
For women of color like Michelle Obama, this pressure to conform to traditional female role-playing is even more intense. Obama isn’t just battling ugly stereotypes about emasculating feminists, but also racist stereotypes that frame black women as overbearing partners and bad mothers. Indeed, no matter how sweet and friendly Obama acts in public—no matter how sincerely sweet she really is—right-wing media continues to obsess over the belief that lurking right under her cheerful demeanor is a boiling cauldron of unfeminine rage. This is why they pick over her past, obsessing over any scrap of evidence that Obama has dared noticed racial disparities in this country, ready to accuse her of the greatest crime a woman can apparently commit: having a strong opinion, particularly about injustice.
Her “mom-in-chief” framing has to be understood in light of that, and in the context of a largely political speech. She looked the nation in the eye and demanded that even women known primarily as wives deserve be heard on their own terms. Political wives are generally expected to somehow be political actors openly campaigning for a candidate and simultaneously unthreateningly apolitical, focused mostly on non-controversial subjects and giving unconditional love to their husbands. In focusing so much of her speech on concrete policy goals and expressing overtly liberal values, Michelle Obama rejected these expectations. Contrast this with Ann Romney’s speech, where the main argument for the candidate had nothing to do with policy, but instead could be summed up as, “I trust my husband, and so should you.” Obama spoke of love, but also made it clear that she isn’t interested in giving a political speech that pretends it’s not political. It was a brave speech, and its popularity set a new standard for what political wives feel they can say in public.
If she had to tack the phrase “mom-in-chief” at the end of the whole thing to make it go down a little easier, so be it. As she herself noted in the speech, change doesn’t happen overnight. But with this speech, she laid the groundwork for the next generation of women to go forward, apologizing less for who they are and what they believe in.