Thursday, January 22, 2009

First Mom

Michelle Obama's page on has these first two lines:

When people ask Michelle Obama to describe herself, she doesn't hesitate. First and foremost, she is Malia and Sasha's mom.

But before she was a mother — or a wife, lawyer, or public servant — she was Fraser and Marian Robinson's daughter.

The matter is up for debate among feminists, obviously. It's a tough space that many women struggle to negotiate in life. Are women mothers or are they professionals? Which comes first? For many women who have children, being a mother is their first and foremost responsibility, and understandably so. Besides, Michelle Obama hasn't worked in roughly two years, and her primary responsibility has been taking care of Sasha and Malia on the campaign trail.

The First Lady is an ill-defined role. It's not an official capacity, but the power of celebrity it brings can do a mountain of good -- just look at the example set by Eleanor Roosevelt. No one begrudges celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt for using their celebrity to muscle attention to global issues, but with the First Lady we almost expect it. It is an office of celebrity inextricably linked to public policy. She is famous because her husband is the chief decision maker of policy in this country. It's almost impossible to avoid that.

The difference is the different representation of men and women in public life. It is extremely rare for men to write such words of parenthood in their biographies, especially in the first lines of them. Usually family falls somewhere at the bottom of the biography, and their professional accomplishments are listed first. I'm not saying one way is right over the other, but the discrepancy really illustrates how men and women's public lives are perceived differently.

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