Ladyrebecca's Musings and Ramblings

The Increasingly Political Thoughts of Rebecca (Becky) Walker

Michelle Obama and the Balancing Act December 29, 2009

This lengthy post was my second essay for Women’s Studies. Here it is:

Katherine Lewis, writing for America.gov, reports that one of Michelle Obama’s goals as First Lady is to help women find the balance between working, mothering, and living (2009). Finding such a balance is something Michelle has extensive experience in. Liza Mundy, author of the biography Michelle, notes that not only did she manage to balance career, marriage, and childrearing, she was also able to balance being the wife of an up-an-coming politician with the “dinner-together-every-night” kind of family she desired (2008. p. 129). However, her balancing acts are under new scrutiny and the rules of the game have changed a bit since she began her move from, as she describes herself, “that little girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago” (quoted in Michelle by Liza Mundy, 2008, p. 173).

When her husband, Barack, decided to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, balance took on a whole new meaning and importance to Michelle. Never one to stand aside when she felt something needed to be done, Michelle made stump speeches and hosted fund-raisers. She gave interviews and appeared on talk shows. As a potential First Lady, Michelle was catapulted along with her husband into the spotlight.

She faced then and continues to face issues that require poise, grace and tremendous amounts of balance in order to navigate through successfully. As the spouse of a politician, success can be defined as not decreasing constituent support for one’s spouse. One of the first tightrope walks Michelle faced was the backlash of her oft repeated statement made on February 18, 2008: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country…” With that one sentence, taken from the middle of a speech about how people are getting involved and are working to make the changes they want to see, Mrs. Obama lit the news sources and bloggers alike on fire as they tore into the presidential candidate’s wife. Webblogger Mickey Kaus, writing for Slate, an online magazine, says “She sure seems to have a non-trivial chip on her shoulder” (2008) and Jim Geraghty, a blogger for National Review called the remark “strikingly ungracious” (2008). Mark Steyn, also writing for National Review accused her of “narcissism and self-absorption” in the same issue that featured a picture of a scowling Michelle with the title “Mrs. Grievance” (2008, April 21, http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MjY4MjQ4MWFjYWUzN2Q2YzAwY2ZlZTRiMTJjY2I0MzE). She was called, “unpatriotic, racist and downright shameful” by blog commenters. (http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=132×4658171) Of course Barack defended her, explaining that her statement was referring to America politically and Michelle clarified along the same lines, saying in an interview with Good Housekeeping: “It’s a mischaracterization that has nothing to do with the intended statement” (2008). But because of the focus the Obama/Biden campaign made on “Change,” Michelle and her husband could not proclaim too loudly of how proud they were of America because of the inability of so many to understand the difference between love and pride. Arthur Brazier clearly expresses the difference:

“I was drafted in the army in World War II. When I got my notice, I didn’t burn my notice or go to Canada, because I love my country. I went to war, but in my uniform I was in a segregated army, totally and completely segregated. And in my uniform, when I was training in the South, I had to ride in the back of the bus. If I wanted to drink water from a drinking fountain, I had to drink from a fountain that said ‘Colored.’ It was greatly humiliating. But I loved my country. I was awarded two bronze stars. I still loved my country. But I wasn’t proud of it. There’s a difference.” (cited in Mundy, 2008, p. 189)

Michelle must find a way to balance loving her country and being proud of America for what it has allowed her and Barack to accomplish alongside seeing clearly the problems in the nation in order to find solutions to them.

Another example of a balancing act she must perform is that of race relations. Michelle Obama is black. She is married to the first African-American president of the United States of America. She is the first First Lady to be a direct descendant of slaves. She is the first African-American First Lady. The African-American community looks up to her as a role model for their daughters and to her husband as a role model for their sons. Katherine Lewis writes “For African-American women to be able to say to their sons, ‘This is an example of a relationship,’ is very valuable” (2009, America.gov). While the Obama’s are role models for all Americans, regardless of race, their contribution to African-Americans is not something that can be discounted. Lewis writes, “[Michelle]’s in a good position to be a positive image for American society and also for black America.” Yet, Michelle must balance the knowledge of the barriers she has broken for the African-American community with the knowledge that focusing too much on race may alienate non-African-American constituents. Worse yet, if she focuses too much on what an accomplishment it is for an African-American to attain the highest office in the land, focuses too much on how hard it is for African-Americans to get a fair shake, focuses too much on how racism is still alive and well in the United States, or focuses too much on white privilege and black oppression, she will be lambasted as “anti-white,” “racist,” and even, “a terrorist.”

Michelle also finds herself balancing the gravity of the issues she cares about (universal health care, soldiers in combat, education opportunities for all children, the plight of the poor, to name a few) with the frivolity the media (and the audiences who pay for it) seem obsessed with. The Money Times (Dec. 12, 2009) reports that Barbara Walters listed Michelle Obama as her most fascinating person of 2009. When Walters interviewed Michelle, did she ask her about her journey from segregated Chicago to two Ivy League schools? Did she ask her about the community work Michelle engaged in? No. Instead, Barbara asked her about her famously “toned arms.” She asked about Michelle’s workout routine. Michelle balances this focus on her body with a push for healthier eating habits and regular exercise. While it may seem frivolous to appear on the cover of Vogue, Michelle being touted as a beauty ideal or a fashion icon is a huge benefit to African-American women. Writer Allison Samuels said it best in her article “What Michelle Means to Us.” “Who and what is beautiful has long been a source of pain, anger, and frustration in the African-American community. In too many cases, beauty for black women…has meant fair skin, “good hair” and dainty facial features.” Samuels quotes a California mail carrier as saying, “It’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn’t happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that—my little girl needs to see it.”

Ruben, Fitts, and Becker (2003) wrote about the need for realistic “beauty ideals” for African-American women in their essay, “Body Ethics and Aesthetics Among African America and Latina Women” (Shaw & Lee 2009). “…Western mainstream media” creates an image of beauty that is a white, thin, with delicate facial features, and “good hair,” that is, not “nappy hair” (p. 262). While there are more African-American women in the media now than previously, “they typically reinscribe prevailing stereotypes by featuring women with lighter skin and “Anglo” features to the exclusion of other women.” (p. 256).

Michelle’s balancing abilities also come into play when dealing with issues of gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. Much of Michelle’s job during the nominating campaign, when speaking to professional women, was to show them that Barack had their interests at heart as much as his opponent, Hillary Clinton did. Michelle drew upon her own experiences as a college graduate and career woman and, wrote in U.S. World News Report, “As first lady, I’d take [working women’s] stories back to Washington to make sure that the people who run our country know how their policies touch their constituents’ lives” (2008, Oct. 17). One of the issues Michelle brings up is the inequality between the sexes in the job market. Michelle writes, “We’ve talked to mothers whose salaries can’t cover the cost of groceries—but if they take a second job, they can’t afford the additional cost of child care. More than 22 million working women don’t have paid sick days. Millions of women are doing the same jobs as men—but they’re earning less” (Oct. 17, 2008). Michelle Cottle reports, “In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Michelle [Obama] observed: ‘What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, god is in there somewhere, but me is first…And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy.’…Looked at one way Michelle was issuing a pointed call for female self-empowerment…For all the talk about this being a partnership of equals, the domestic roles Michelle and Barack have assumed are, in many ways, strikingly stereotypical.” (The New Republic, March 26, 2008)

Michelle has the title First Lady because of the position her husband is in. Her role in society is defined by her husband’s role. She has put her career on hold to provide the support her husband needs in order to succeed. However, if she were to address gender roles as such and were to decry her current traditional role, she may very well alienate the many constituents who believe in traditional roles for men and women. She must balance the fact that she is in a position to affect positive change for women in nontraditional roles with the fact that she is in such a position because she is in a traditional role herself.

Michelle’s ability to balance seemingly incompatible ideals comes into sharp focus when looking into her stance on social programs. Michelle Obama’s story is one of personal responsibility, hard work, and opportunities, both fought for and taken, equalling success. This aspect of Michelle appeals to the Conservative/Right wing constituents of the country. Her boot-strap story is just that: a story of someone who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Or is it? Hers may appear to be a bootstrap story but if she were pulled up by bootstraps, she wasn’t the only one pulling. Michelle recognizes the precarious nature of her rise to success and is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is afforded the breaks she was and not everyone is in a position to capitalize on the breaks that come their way. Mundy writes, “[Barack] was touched” during their courtship, “by what he saw as the occasional hint of vulnerability, the sense that her good fortune could vanish with one misstep, ‘as if, deep inside, she new how fragile things really were’” (2008, p. 96).

One of her greatest motivators to work hard in everything she did, was the work ethic instilled upon her by her hard-working, self-reliant father, Fraser Robinson (Mundy, 2008). Lexington, writing for the Economist, reports that “More than 60% of black children these days are brought up without a father” (2009, p. 38), and aside from “The Cosby Show,” “there are still woefully few public examples of solid, stable black marriages” (Samuels, 2008). Because of how much respect Michelle had for her dad, Mundy writes, she was very picky about the men she dated (2008). Had she not held out for as good a man as her father had been and had she not had her father’s work ethic, Michelle’s story may have gone a completely different direction.

Fraser Robinson worked for the city, a respectable job for an African American in the 1950’s, writes Mundy. A job with the city was coveted as it offered security and decent insulation from the turmoil of a collapsing blue collar job market. Many African-American’s did not have access to city jobs and the privilege of such a job was paramount to the Robinson’s success.

Michelle was entering middle school as the city was making inroads to deal with the heavy segregation of its school system. One of their solutions was magnet schools. Michelle applied and was accepted and it was there, in the exception to the rule, that she received an accelerated, multicultural education that equipped her to succeed in the two Ivy colleges she attended. Without that opportunity, her college choices, her success in the college environment, and her career options after graduation might have looked completely different.

It is these stereotypes, ideals, contradictions, and priorities that Michelle must balance if she is to be successful. She can not be “too” angry about racism, the plight of the poor, or the frivolity of the media without being labeled “an angry black woman.” She can not ignore racism, the plight of the poor, or the frivolity of the media without denying who she is, where she comes from, and the issues at stake. She can not be “too” black without being labeled as a “black elitist” nor can she be “too” white without being labeled a traitor. She can not promote the bootstrap myth without trivializing the situation of the poor and placing blame upon those in poverty. She can not deny that there is an element of personal responsibility in her own story of success. She loves her children and wants them to have the best life possible, including the best president possible. She loves her husband and wants him to be as successful as possible. These loves require her to make personal sacrifices that may not be seen as demonstrating “equality.”

Michelle, in fighting stereotype and overcoming hurdles, has reached a position where she must simultaneously be a stay-at-home mom and advocate feminist ideals; preach the qualities of “bootstrapping” but avoid victim blaming; be a role model for African Americans while not alienating white citizens; and try to steer attention towards important, lasting issues without offending those fascinated by her “style.” Our nation’s 46th First Lady has her work cut out for her but if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Michelle.

References

Cottle, M. (2008, March 26). Wife lessons: Why Michelle Obama is no Hillary Clinton. The New Republic, 23,24.

Geraghty, J. (2008, February 19). Comparing John McCain and Michelle Obama. National Review Online: Campaign Spot. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from http://campaignspot.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MDQxMjVmZDFlMGU5OGFiNTYwN2I5MDk0MDY2Zjk5NWY=

Good Housekeeping. (2008, November). A conversation with Michelle Obama. Good Housekeeping, 143-218, 5 p.

Kaus, M. (2008, February 18). Is that an s-chip on your shoulder or are you just glad to see me?. Slate. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from http://www.slate.com/id/2184672/#mchip

Lewis, K. (2009, July 9). Michelle Obama presents the modern image for black women. America.gov. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from http://www.america.gov/st/econ-english/2009/January/20090126163119BErehelleK0.5277063.html

Lexington, (2009, March 21). The other Obama. The Economist, 38.

Money Times, The. (2009, December 10). Michelle Obama is Walters’ ‘secret’ most fascinating person. The Money Times. Retrieved December 10, 2009, from http://www.themoneytimes.com/featured/20091210/michelle-obama-walters-secret-most-fascinating-person-id-10937744.html

Mundy, L. (2008). Michelle. New York, NY; Simon & Schuster.

Obama, M. (2008, October 17). Michelle Obama: As Barack’s first lady, I would work to help working families and military families. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from http://www.usnews.com/articles/opinion/2008/10/17/michelle-obama-as-baracks-first-lady-i-would-work-to-help-working-families-and-military-families.html

Ruben, L., Fitts, M., & Becker, A. (2009). Body ethics and aesthetics among African American and Latina women. In S. Shaw & J. Lee (Eds.), Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (4th ed.). (pp. 255-266). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Samuels, A. (2008, November 22). What Michelle means to us. Newsweek. Retrieved on December 10, 2009, from http://www.newsweek.com/id/170383

Steyn, M. (2008, March 21). Mrs. Obama’s America. National Review, 34.

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