Over the past two years, Michelle Obama's public image has undergone a remarkable number of transitions: Outspoken antiwar activist. Self-proclaimed "mom-in-chief." Fashion icon. Advocate for her husband's economic agenda. Vegetable gardener.
Throughout, feminists have watched Michelle with some trepidation, worried that this professionally accomplished attorney and longtime advocate for urban issues was being politically pressured into embracing a domestic role. As I wrote in November, "The packaging of Michelle Obama as nonthreatening and traditionally feminine cannot be examined outside the constraints of the first lady role. And the first lady role -- as an unpaid national hostess expected to give up her own career -- is hopelessly retrograde."
Now, at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Lacewell tackles these criticisms head-on, arguing that Michelle's traditional first lady-hood actually strikes a conscious blow against racism. "There is something powerful, subversive, and new in Michelle Obama's traditionalism," Harris-Lacewell writes:
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.
As Harris-Lacewell admits, there are feminist risks here. For most American women, Michelle Obama's helpmate image is totally out of reach. Black women, in particular, are more likely to be single mothers, to be working outside the home just to make ends meet, and to be doing all that without any financial support from a man. Michelle Obama, of course, is well aware of this. She speaks frequently about the challenges of working parenthood, especially for women. And though we don't think of her as "working," Michelle and her staff frequently attend policy-focused meetings in the West Wing, and keep a public schedule nearly as busy as the president's. In reality, Michelle is a working mom. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Obama administration would prefer not to have the world think of Michelle in that way. Why?