“Leaning Out” Proves Feminism is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Politico’s magazine has a cover piece on Michelle Obama called “>”Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” Or, it could have been titled “random feminists are disappointed.” As per usual, the piece is long on other people’s opinions about how Michelle Obama is single handedly failing the cause and short on actual analysis and historical context.

The piece opens by sharing a story about a new political initiative that Michelle Obama is involved with, with writer Michelle Cottle implying that Obama’s focus on people and not policy is not enough:

Speaking last week at Bell Multicultural High School, a couple of miles north of the White House, the first lady touted the importance of a college degree, citing her own journey from a one-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s South Side to Princeton as evidence of how far hard work and good schooling can take you. “I’m here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story,” she told the predominantly low-income, heavily minority student body.

Cottle goes on to explain that Obama’s visit to Bell Multicultural is part of a push for a campaign to encourage college completion. Cottle then complains that Obamas efforts with youth outreach are distressingly focused on actually talking to the youth, instead of digging deep and hitting hard at policy from the White House Garden.

This example is an interesting one to criticize, to say the least. Nothing is mentioned about DC’s unique space in public education debates, now forgotten after the heyday of high profile reformers. Not much is said about why there may be a focus on minority graduation rates from college, or why Bell Multicultural might be the perfect kind of place to launch an initiative focusing on low income students and college enrollment. No, no, Cottle would like us to understand that Michelle Obama is failing feminism because she insists on being motherly.

In Cottle’s own words:

Turns out, she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.

Oh, the horror.

As per usual, the piece ignores anything but a surface level acknowledgement of racism and racial schisms in feminism. Amazingly, Cottle extensively quotes Rebecca Walker and still manages to miss incorporating the ideas Walker conveys in her analysis. Especially this bit, which is absent from the article’s framing (emphasis mine):

Black women are perceived as more argumentative, contentious, fists in the air,” Walker argues. In grappling with those perceptions, she says, “I wouldn’t necessarily say Michelle Obama had to kowtow to some demand that she become a June Cleaver type. I would say she understands the need to help people understand a model that they may not have been familiar with, and to help them learn how to trust something that they may not have been able to in past.” Then Walker laughs wryly. “You’ve got to be real here. This is America. Our history demands strategy—and grace and finesse. It’s a miracle to me that she’s been able to do it as well as she has.

Also worth noting: Cottle identifies Rebecca Walker as “feminist and author Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker.”

No mention that Alice Walker was the architect behind womanism, a movement meant to address a lot of the black women’s criticisms of feminism and that she is a powerful voice for feminism in her own right.

Also, as per usual, no mentions of the intense scrutiny and criticism of Michelle Obama based solely on her race and gender (see here and here if you need to quickly catch up). There is no discussion of how certain “feminist” ideals may be different for different groups of women. There is much discussion about Michelle Obama’s Ivy League education, but no understanding of why she may have placed parenting two young black children at the forefront of her efforts, and why opening the White House to the children of DC is, in itself, a profound act.

Finally, the specter of Hillary Clinton comes up twice in the piece as a way to compare and frame Obama’s tenure as first lady. First, as a dashed hope:

At the same time, her Ivy League degrees, career success and general aura as an ass-kicking, do-it-all superwoman had some women fantasizing that she would, if not find a clever way to revive the 2-for-1 model pitched by the Clintons so long ago, at least lean in and speak out on a variety of tough issues.

Then again, as a cautionary note:

First ladies must walk a fine line between getting involved and meddling (see: Clinton, Hillary).

But for all the valorization of the HRC years, it isn’t clear that Michelle Obama would benefit from taking a more aggressive stance in policy – one of Hillary Clinton’s big causes was health care reform, and we see how that played out in 1993 and 1994. Looking the Affordable Care Act and its implementation close to 20 years after the Clinton’s joint initiative, would Michelle really have been better off throwing down in Congress?

But the saddest part of this missed opportunity of a cover story is the online reaction – racist comments, derogatory remarks about Michelle’s body, height and stature, and attacks on her daughters overshadow the actual engagement with the piece. This is consistent with how any action taken by Michelle Obama has been received by certain quarters – while some feminists may be appalled at her refusal to come out swinging, maintaining a high approval rating while enduring a constant barrage of racially charged hatred is a full time job all on its own. And that’s not to mention shepherding two teenagers through the most challenging phase of their lives in the public eye, and figuring out how to keep a family together after two challenging spins around the Oval Office.

Honestly, I’m amazed Michelle has time to keep up with all the gardening, much less “shatter the first lady mold.” And considering that the role of first lady has never truly been defined, isn’t it up to the occupant to determine how best to spend their time?

Still, as always, it is Michelle Obama herself that provides the best perspective on how she approaches her role. From her 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention:

Our life before moving to Washington was filled with simple joys…Saturdays at soccer games, Sundays at grandma’s house…and a date night for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.

And the truth is, I loved the life we had built for our girls…I deeply loved the man I had built that life with…and I didn’t want that to change if he became President. [...]

You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still “mom-in-chief.”

My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.

But today, I have none of those worries from four years ago about whether Barack and I were doing what’s best for our girls.

Because today, I know from experience that if I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters, and all our sons and daughters…if we want to give all our children a foundation for their dreams and opportunities worthy of their promise…if we want to give them that sense of limitless possibility – that belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you’re willing to work for it…then we must work like never before…and we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great country forward…my husband, our President, President Barack Obama.

Playing the supportive role doesn’t seem like a feminist choice on its face. But taken in context with the Obama’s journey, and Michelle’s own trajectory of achievement, to opine that an eight year focus on children and families is somehow failing feminism misses the mark.

And, when read through the lens of American history and race, in some ways, Obama’s choices to work on stabilizing her daughters and encouraging the next generation may be more in line with feminist ideals than people like Cottle would like to admit.

  • KjenNu

    It seems as if there are dozens of articles/blog posts that have been written to rate and critique M. Obama’s performance of feminism. In fact, it appears as if every woman is subjected to such critiques once she reaches a certain level of fame. In the end, these posts boil down to the point of ”should we – the mainstream feminist establishment – deign to snatch away or generously bestow the LABEL of feminist upon this woman?” This need to constantly brand feminism and feminists is starting to seem petty and unproductive.

  • Foxessa

    Leave Our First Lady alone! She’s maybe the best First Lady we’ve ever had. Well, maybe Martha Washington was, but I wasn’t around then, and things were so different, it’s apples and oranges.

  • http://ichoosethesun.com/ ichoosethesun

    Thanks for this Latoya. Cottle’s article just clarified what I have struggled to articulate for years: As a Black woman, I have never been able to identify fully as a Feminist.

    • Firene Lotun

      I think this is true for a lot of us (black women). Cottle’s article, in many ways, exemplifies why a lot of women have and continue to abandon traditional feminism. It’s to be understood as a struggle for an equal portion of the current power, not a call for a transformation of that power into something different. In other words, she seems to think feminism is about gaining parity as a class instead of dismantling the entire idea of class. This allows her to see Michelle as the kind of woman those feminists don’t want to be seen as: mothers, who in our society are still viewed as persons who dwell in kitchens, have babies, and obey husbands.

      And that’s where her and her brand of feminism are gravely mistaken and, in the end, a severe detriment to equality.