Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can We Please Stop Questioning Michelle Obama’s Feminist Credentials?

I have a new piece up at Clutch Magazine

'First Lady Michelle Obama official photographic portrait' photo (c) 2009, Georgia Democrats - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Once again, there is a conversation in the mainstream press about whether Michelle Obama is feminist enough.  Her platform is being debated, as well as her decision to identify as “Mom-in-Chief.”  This conversation really brings to fore the breach between White feminists and many Black women.  Feminism has a long history of racism and these issues have yet to be settled.  Black women are told that we should privilege gender over and above any other marginalization that we must also negotiate, while many White feminists continue to ignore that Black women have often had very different organizing goals.  Michelle Obama isn’t just the First Lady of the United States; she is the first Black First Lady and over and above her educational and professional accomplishments, Mrs. Obama represents a view of black womanhood that is often eschewed by the media.

When Michelle Obama said, “For the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country,” the media had a field day, and she was quickly benched by President Obama’s election campaign.  As much as feminists may want a more vocal and assertive First Lady, I cannot help but wonder what they would do if they actually got their wish. Are they even capable of understanding that being an educated wife and mother under the gaze of a 24-hour news media is indeed political for a Black woman?

The question feminists should be asking isn’t whether or not Michelle Obama is feminist enough, but why the role of the First Lady is so limited. First Ladies are expected to take a peripheral role in government and support initiatives which are considered safe and do not challenge their husband’s policy directives.  She is meant to comfort Middle America while appearing as arm candy for the President.  Any First Lady who has sought to step even marginally outside of this role has been pilloried by the press.

Many liberal feminists have deified Hillary Clinton as the feminist political representative. Though Hillary Clinton was not the first woman to run for president, no other woman has come as close to winning their party’s nomination for president. Clinton was the first to have her own office in the West Wing and she even led former President Clinton’s failed bid at healthcare reform.  Bill and Hillary made it clear that by electing him, the American people were getting “two for the price of one,” yet Hillary Clinton was seen as interfering in government business, even though her education and work history clearly made her labour valuable to the American public.  Hillary was repeatedly and resoundingly skewered by the right-wing press. For many, Hillary was simply a woman who didn’t know her place.   It has become common practice to claim that constant public attacks have no effect on their target, but the truth of the matter is, one would have to be an automaton not to have an emotional response to repeated attacks based solely in one’s marginalisation. There absolutely was a personal cost to the role that Hillary played in the Clinton administration.

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