Gender

Michelle Obama Moves First Lady Role into 21st Century

Michelle Obama's appearance last night conveyed an admirable unwillingness to diminish herself and her gifts to fit a sexist ideal.
DENVER -- Back in the dreary days just before the New Hampshire primary, an immigration activist had this to say about Barack Obama's candidacy and racial politics in America: the real test of the nation's evolution on race in the presidential race come when Americans wake up and realize that a President Obama delivers to the nation a black first lady. The White House redecorated by a black woman. The White House Christmas tree decorated at the direction of a black woman. State dinners presided over by a black woman -- a black woman from the South Side of Chicago. I think my friend was onto something.

The first lady role has always been an expression of a particular ideal of womanhood: demure, soft-spoken, sexless, harmless. First ladies who deviated from that narrative -- Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton -- suffered endless derision. Michelle Obama, with her impressive accomplishments, deep intelligence and confident presence will no doubt agitate the same sneering chorus of frightened men.

That's before we even consider our national pathologies around race. To begin with, the attributes ascribed to African-American women by our media and national mythology stand in direct opposition to the demure, soft-spoken, sexless ideal. Add in Michelle Obama's physical stature and unaffected mannerisms, and the chorus of scaredy tomcats who today make their home in right-wing media will no doubt be driven to an elevated level of madness.

But last night's speech by Michelle Obama to the Democratic National Convention should go a long way to reassuring Joe Average, if not Joe Wingnut, that Michelle Obama has figured out how to be a first lady for her time. Never before in recent memory has a potential first lady seemed so confident and comfortable in the glare of the spotlight. Not only did she deliver a speech with an effective message (family, family, family), but she delivered it flawlessly. In her delivery (if less in substance), Ms. Obama revealed a great deal about herself -- not least of all, her unwillingness to diminish herself and her gifts to fit a sexist ideal. Yet, her message proved the perfect foil to her strong and flawless presentation, much as, in her sense of style, Michelle Obama's evocation of Jacqueline Kennedy does the same. (I want that green/blue dress.)

Michelle Obama last night set out to convey to the American people a set of values reassuring in its evocation of traditional notions of family: Michelle Obama raised by a father who was "our provider," a stay-at-home mom and a protective older brother. Still, a glimmering of our transitional moment in gender roles and relations is found in Ms. Obama's expressed appreciation not only for her mother's caring nature, but also in her assertion that she saw in her daughters' eyes her mother's intelligence. And she permitted her father's finer qualities to be attributed, in her brother's introduction, to her.

Michelle Obama last night also spoke a truth that has yet to be addressed in the story of this historic election: the unique situation of African-American women in the 2008 primary. Every insulting remark with a racial tinge aimed at Barack Obama, and every sexist depiction of Hillary Clinton -- all these were felt by African-American women in ways not imaginable by those who have not endured those harms as their own.

While Ms. Obama did not address that very particular situation head-on, she did allude to it in a more celebratory guise:
It is because of their will and determination that this week, we celebrate two anniversaries: the 88th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, and the 45th anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.
I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history -- knowing that my piece of the American Dream is a blessing hard-won by those who came before me.
If you look at Michelle Obama's valedictory last night, you can take it at face value , and hear a message about the value of traditional family, laced with the sort of mythologizing with which political storying is rife. But read a bit between the lines, and you'll see something more nuanced, something a little paradoxical, a little mischievous.

Hillary Clinton, whom Michelle Obama rightfully appreciated last night in her speech, cleared part of Michelle Obama's path for her: an educated woman, a career woman, an attorney, no less, serving the nation as helpmeet to the man in charge. But there's a good bit more of the brush to be cleared, and Michelle Obama last night left the distinct impression that she's up to the job.