Friday, November 14, 2008

Madam First Lady

Emily Brazelon has some feedback on the Rebecca Traister piece on Michelle Obama's "momification" I wrote about earlier this week. Brazelon seems to be giving feminist props to Michelle Obama for her role as mom-in-chief, that the media (and the Obama campaign/administration itself) has recently been promoting. I agree with Brazelon's main point that just blaming the media for this is a little too easy. I also agree that Michelle's role as wife and mom isn't exactly new and it's one that she's been promoting throughout the campaign. I think the answer is much deeper, it's about the illusion of choice many women have. We're seeing though that illusion with Michelle Obama.

What we're talking about here at the root of this is the the debate that's been happening since the second wave of feminism. Woman who didn't want to be attacked for staying at home to raise children accuse feminists of going back on their "choice" rhetoric. The reasoning goes that feminists should support the "choices" of women, even if that means a woman "chooses" to stay at home to raise children instead of pursuing a career. And I agree, when a woman (or man, for that matter) decides that raising children is that important, then more power to her (or him!).

The tricky part, though, is that "choices" aren't as open or easy as we like to think they are. Women tend to be at a disadvantage when making these choices thanks to the fact that they are often out-earned by their husbands and the pressure of societal norms that call on women to be caretakers.

Take the pressures on Michelle Obama. Michelle can't really "choose" to be a working First Lady in the White House. That would be weird, right? No other First Lady has done that, and Michelle probably isn't really into breaking. It also seems clear that everyone, Michelle included, is seeking to avoid "repeating Hillary Clinton's rocky first lady performance," as Brazelon said. Clinton flexed her muscles as First Lady, and the result was that she became one of the most polarizing figures in America. The backlash on Hillary's role as First Lady will last for a long time.

So Michelle has been left with extremely limited choices. She probably doesn't want to be as passive as many other First Ladies, but she certainly can't be like Hillary. She may have made her peace with the decision to make career sacrifices for Barack a long time ago, as Brazelon said, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy for her. Barack even acknowledges Michelle's resentment of his lack of domestic help in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. In many ways, Michelle's situation is like many other women who are part of powerful couples today and are more or less forced into making hard decisions when their husbands get promotions that are too good to turn down.*

But while I agree with most of what Brazelon says, I thought this line seemed off, "in the meantime, yes, [Michelle] is the one honcho-ing their physical move, or at least whom to delegate it to. I hope so! Because I want my president-elect working on other pressing matters like our economic crisis." It may be true for the Obama's that Barack's job is too important for him to be an equal partner in household affairs, but I think such justifications are liberally applied to other men with "important" jobs. Are the cultural expectations really so different when the man is president of a company or running his own business? The conventional wisdom is that we can't expect men to share in household work because their jobs are too important. Women's jobs, on the other hand, are almost never considered more important than family responsibilities. I have a hard time believing that people would be so generous to Michelle if the Obamas' roles were reversed, and it was she that was too busy to pay cursory attention to finding the right schools for her daughters because she was dealing with the country's economic crisis.

In the end this debate is just a redux of the "mommy wars" that resurface every few years. I never found these screaming matches very useful. But the one good thing to come out of them, as shrill and awful as they were, is that men need to be expected to help with the responsibilities of home and children equally, no matter how busy they are. In the Obama's case, it may not be possible, but it's probably the only exception I can think of. We also need to stop assuming that just because women have children they must want to give up a career. Unfortunately, Michelle's situation has sparked this debate once again.

*For the vast majority of women today, working isn't a luxury; it's a necessity. Most women must work because they have to. It isn't a choice for them.

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