This is a guest post by Janice and Andrea.
Janice Formichella is a second year graduate student at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. She will be graduating with her MPA in May and looks forward to a career advocating for the rights of women. You can0 read more from Janice at Feminist Friendly.
Andrea Hance lives in New York City and works as the Education Coordinator at the New York Tolerance Center. Andrea has been an activist most of her life and one of her past projects include working for the Obama State Senate race in Illinois. Andrea is the author of the blog Progressive Plaid
Michelle Obama: The People’s First Lady continues the legacy of the People’s Princess.
By: Janice Formichella and Andrea Hance
The Obama’s trip to England last week was a significant highlight in the first hundred days of the Presidency. What the trip truly served as, however, was a red carpet introducing Michelle Obama to the world. The headlines soon shifted from the G20 summit to Michelle Obama’s performance as First Lady and the fact that she overshadowed her husband during the trip. This became front-page news after Michelle made a memorable visit to a local girls school after a historic and even eyebrow-raising audience with the Queen. As images of the visit were flashed over news programs and evening papers, many started to sense the presence of the late Princess Diana in the behavior, grace, individuality, and public awe that Michelle commanded. By the end of the day some reporters had modified the comparison between Michelle and Jackie O to perhaps the more appropriate comparison of Michelle and Princess Diana.
Some of us also felt Diana’s absence. Having grown up watching Princess Diana we found the comparison between her and our new First Lady intriguing. Ever since her untimely and tragic death in 1997, no one woman has emerged to take Diana’s place as an inspiring, intelligent, courageous, graceful woman the entire world can to look up to. Given the significance of both women it is worth taking a look at the similarities between Princess Diana and her heir apparent.
One aspect of Diana’s legacy that Michelle has already started to embody is her willingness and ability to raise awareness for issues that, while critical, gather little mainstream attention. Consider the issue of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. In 1987 not only was Diana one of the first high profile celebrities to be photographed with someone afflicted with HIV, she was the first member of the royal family to do so. Diana sat with AIDS victims at their beds, held their hands, and helped to educate the public about the disease—which was very misunderstood at the time. While much of the world (not to mention the U.S. President) was turning away, Princess Diana was giving a human face to the devastation of HIV.
The First Lady seems determined to use her notoriety in the same way.
It is encouraging to see that Michelle is selecting issues that impact women and girls directly. Prior to becoming the first African American First Lady, Michelle championed for pay equity in the workplace and spoke about the importance of work/life balance; two issues that while important, rarely gain celebrity attention. In addition, Michelle has publicly discussed the importance of women owning their professional achievements while still being proud, responsible mothers. In a society were mothers face exorbitant expectations and pressures, the importance of someone such as Michelle Obama talking openly about this dilemma women face cannot be understated as it impacts so many families.
One striking similarity between Princess Diana and the First Lady is their ready, open arms. This is something about Diana that we will never forget and something about Michelle that is seducing the entire world. After addressing the students last week, Michelle ignored the secret service and launched, arms open, into the crowd of ecstatic girls at Elizabeth Garret Language School. This impulsive response invoked images of Diana emotionally clinging to babies stricken with HIV or children disfigured by landmines. This readiness to act on impulse and challenge the status quo allows these women to appear human to the world and will endure them to the public for a hundred years to come.
Michelle embodies the same valuable legacy of loving and responsible motherhood that Diana was so well known for. Both mothers have instilled a sense of personal responsibility in their children and managed to keep a sense of normal childhood for them while growing up in the public eye. It is important for young women that Michelle is making active motherhood such a strong focus while also promoting progressive ideas about women, careers, and families.
Princess Diana and Michelle Obama both gained notoriety through their marriages to powerful men. Both women also quickly transcended the label of “wife” and became influential in their own right. This similarity also represents a large difference between the women, and one of our greatest hopes. While addressing the school girls last week, Michelle told the girls that the men in her life taught her “what a respectful relationship should look like between men and women” and “what a strong marriage looks like.” It was these remarks about men and relationships that were possibly the most significant yet the most under reported. In an era of wide spread degradation of women, and visible, even tolerated domestic violence, hearing the most iconic woman in the world address healthy relationships is astounding and shows remarkable foresight on her part. Aside from the fact that Michelle is willing to bring attention to a subject that most would rather treat as a non-issue, the Obama’s portray a relationship that is respectful and equitable. When the President makes comments about his marriage such as “as you build a life of mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person” (1) the couple is setting a wonderful example for young men and women all over the world.
Perhaps this is one issue that Diana wished she could have addressed or portrayed differently. Unfortunately Diana’s marriage was tabloid news for its lack of honesty and mutual support. She rocked the royal family by divorcing the Prince to regain her independence and self-respect. Now, we see Michelle demanding and enjoying these things within a solid relationship.
As young progressive women we are hopeful that Michelle will continue to use her influence to bring awareness and action to causes that impact women disproportionally and continue to demonstrate courage in doing so. It was revealed last week that Afghanistan is in the process of passing laws that will strip women of several fundamental rights. Surprisingly, this shocking turn of events has prompted little outrage from the world community. Given her growing influence, we ask Michelle to publicly condemn these actions and press for U.S. intervention. If Michelle has the courage to take the lead on some of these sticky issues, she will not be alone. A legion of women, equipped with a leader, will gather around her to sound the alarm—yes we can, and yes we will!
It is truly a tragedy that the world was not able to witness the meeting of Princess Diana and Michelle Obama. It certainly would have been the beginning of a dynamic friendship. Instead we will remember the example that Diana set for all young women of the world and will watch with anticipation as Michelle continues to dazzle and impress us.
Editors Note: Though I am in complete disagreement with comparing Michelle Obama with a white woman born into privilege, I have decided to post this piece so that a variety of perspectives may be reflected on this blog.