How Far Does Michelle Obama Have to Lean In to Be a Feminist?

Apparently Michelle Obama, an Ivy league educated lawyer, mother of two, and America's only black first lady, according to Michelle Cottle in a Politico magazine, is a "feminist nightmare."

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Apparently Michelle Obama, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, mother of two, and America's only black first lady, is a "feminist nightmare." So says Michelle Cottle, in a Politico magazine piece that seems to deem anything short of "Angry Black Woman" Michelle as a catastrophic setback to Gloria Steinem's good work. Cottle manages to downplay the race lines Obama toes while also creating a stricter feminist standard for her than for (mainly white) women who "lean in" like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg.

Last week Obama became the ambassador to the "North Star" program that will hopefully increase the percentage of Americans going to college, focusing especially on lower-income communities. "Here, finally, was an issue worthy of the Ivy-educated, blue-chip law firm-trained first lady, a departure from the safely, soothingly domestic causes she had previously embraced," Cottle writes. "Gardening? Tending wounded soldiers? Reading to children?" Linda Hirshman, the feminist author, guffaws to Cottle that Obama "essentially became the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s,” she said.  

Cottle, and the FLOTUS-detracting feminists she interviews, have three complaints. First that Michelle has always been too traditional. As Cottle wrote way back in 2008 for The New Republic, Michelle is familiar because she knows how to relate to housewives. She made jokes about her husband and got a baby sitter when he couldn't help her out around the house. Cottle called her a traditionalist wrapped in the modern exterior, which was good for Barack's campaign, but meant she wasn't "a mold-shattering new breed of First Lady, or even the fierce symbol of feminism that was Hillary Rodham Clinton circa 1992."

Second, Michelle isn't making a difference. Feminists hoped she would "at least lean in and speak out on a variety of tough issues," but she hasn't given a major speech on abortion just yet. "As President Obama claws his way through a second term, the sense of urgency for his well-educated wife to do more — to make a difference — may well be mounting. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen," Cottle writes. As the saying goes, kids are not our future. The last complaint is that Michelle is too busy playing mom. Cottle described a recent appearance by the first lady with this: "There was the first lady in full mom mode, lecturing students about nothing more politically controversial than the need to do their homework." Encouraging kids to go to school isn't controversial, so it's not worth the time of a true feminist. If she'd drafted a law demanding that kids do their homework, however, that might be a different story.  

The New Yorker. 

Of course, it's not until the 18th paragraph that Cottle acknowledges that the image of a militant first lady might be represent an obstacle to reaching a post-racial, post-gender-roles utopia. Then she calls on Hirshman, who is white, to completely invalidate that. Hirschman argues that Michelle managed to “stay out of the range of fire for six years” (ha ha ha)  even though she was standing at the "intersection of race and gender," representing "both of the scariest threats to the straight white male establishment in one person." But then she says, "The way she did that was to give, for all intents and purposes, an almost music-hall-level imitation of a warm-and-fuzzy, unthreatening, bucolic female from some imaginary era from the past.”

What does it mean to be a good feminist first lady? It's a difficult job, as first ladies have a lot of fame and very little power. There haven't been many feminist first ladies — perhaps Hillary Clinton was the only one, but it's worth noting that she has that reputation largely despite what she did as first lady: Clinton wrote a book called It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Usas well as Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets. And that Clinton's signature policy initiative back then was Hillarycare, which failed rather spectacularly. Just saying.

So Obama actually has very few role models for turning a feminist cause into a first lady success. Obama's girly causes like childhood obesity and gardening might seem trivial on the surface. But Cottle and all the disappointed feminists — including one who argued that Michelle should work on issues that "disproportionately impact the black community, such as AIDS and out-of-wedlock births" — ignore the fact that childhood obesity disproportionately affects minority children. They also seem to be unaware of and/or unimpressed by the fact that poor, often minority-heavy neighborhoods have less access to healthy produce. But more than that, they seem to act as if Michelle and Barack run a dictatorship, as if their endorsement of a program that helps low income families and minorities will wish a bill into law, instead of being perceived by detractors as government handouts to welfare queens. Controversy has been unavoidable — little Malia wore her hair in twists and the racists of the internet reared their ugly heads of straight hair.

But Michelle's efforts haven't been good enough and are easily forgotten by real feminists. When Cottle argues that Michelle "is not going to let loose suddenly with some straight talk about abortion rights or Obamacare or the Common Core curriculum debate," she's probably ignoring the first lady's Yahoo Shine article encouraging mothers to embrace the Affordable Care Act. Yes, Yahoo Shine is a little girly, but if it's good enough for Marissa Meyer then why not Michelle? Because she called herself the "mom-in-chief" and meant it, that's why.

"So enough already with the pining for a Michelle Obama who simply doesn’t exist," Cottle argues. "The woman is not going to morph into an edgier, more activist first lady. The 2012 election did not set her free." Which is kind of the exact opposite of what Cottle said in June in a piece for The Daily Beast

And as we noted earlier this year, Obama spoke at Harper High School, a predominantly black school in Chicago that made headlines after a This American Life story highlighted the toll gun violence has taken at the school. She talked to them about completing their educations. The speech, plus her "teary plea," doesn't seem like something an English lady of the manor would commit to. Obama used her position as someone who grew up in Chicago and went on to go to college to influence kids, while drawing more attention to a gun control effort that eventually failed in Congress.

So if being a feminist first lady is not about policy, maybe it's about style. That would be fitting, given the job's limitations. Hillary Clinton infamously said in 1992, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas." If feminism at it's most basic core is the idea that men and women should be treated equally, then can real feminists criticize a woman for calling herself mom-in-chief? Or for choosing causes over policy (while also belittling and ignoring her achievements)?

Mikki Kendall, the writer who brought feminism's marginalization of minorities to the forefront with the #solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter hashtag, argues that Cottle's piece, and the MObama dissenters, aren't feminist at all. The solidarity hashtag was a chance for feminists of color to air the grievances with mainstream feminism, which tends to favor the needs of middle class, white feminists. In this case, solidarity is only for political women who talk about abortion, who don't waste their time with silly chores like childhood obesity, or ignore the political ramifications of being tough, black and female:

Maybe the feminist nightmare isn't Michelle Obama, who is happy with her role as a mother and her work helping young people. Maybe it's the fact that, even now in 2013, feminists and "feminists" think it's okay to penalize her for that. Maybe it's the fact that feminism, which should really only be about "The Patriarchy" versus "Everything Else," tends to define its battle lines much less broadly.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.