In 2008, when Obama announced her intention to be “mom-in-chief,” many feminists decried her decision to give up her career and said she had been victimized by her husband’s choices. She was regarded as one of the women feminist Linda Hirshman described as “letting down the team.”
But most black feminists and writers had a different view. Let the sister get settled, they said. Give her a minute to do a head count. And if she wanted to focus on motherhood, for black women that was more than fine. It was arguably revolutionary, because black women were long denied the right — or lacked the means — to simply care for their own.
As she begins another four years in the White House, the nation’s feminists are divided about the “work” Obama has done, and the work they’d like to see her do.
This split has bitter historic roots. It surfaced during the suffrage movement, when white women suggested their votes could counter those of “the darker races,” and again in the 1970s, when black feminists broke away over the white middle-class focus of “women’s lib.”
Now, with an African American woman in the White House, these differences have rushed back to the fore.
Last year, after Obama and Ann Romney submitted recipes for a cookie contest, Hirshman told The Washington Post that Obama’s “first mom, gardener thing” is “silly.” Now, Hirshman says, “I’ve kind of lost interest in Michelle Obama. She was trapped by assumptions about race and had limited room to maneuver. Whether that was a welcome choice or she had no choice, I will never know. It’s very difficult to envision her as running for senator from the state of Illinois as you did with Hillary Clinton running for senator from the state of New York.”
“Are fashion and body-toning tips all we can expect from one of the most highly educated First Ladies in history?” asked author Leslie Morgan Steiner in an online column last January. She said she’d “read enough bland dogma on home-grown vegetables and aerobic exercise to last me several lifetimes.”
Steiner contended Obama probably had little leeway. “I’m sure there is immense pressure — from political advisors, the black community, her husband, the watching world — to play her role as First Black Lady on the safe side.”
Feminist discontent with the first lady spiked again last summer at the Democratic National Convention, after she called her daughters “the heart of my heart and the center of my world.” She then repeated her feminist crazy-maker: “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’ ”