Four years later, feminists split by Michelle Obama’s ‘work’ as first lady

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote by Lilith Dornhuber to the Web site Feministing.com. Dornhuber is not a writer for Feministing; her comment appeared on its community forum. This version has been updated.

In the opening moments of her second turn at history, as Michelle Obama waves at celebrants along Pennsylvania Avenue, Americans will clamor to see the first lady, who remains one of the most popular public figures in the country. In the most recent poll, fully 73 percent said they approve of the way she is handling her job.

But a significant group of Americans — feminist Americans — have been vocally disappointed with her choices and feel let down by her example.

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.’ ”

“Why does mom-in-chief have to be the most important thing this strong, vibrant woman tells us about herself as she flexes the strange but considerable power of the office of first lady?” Emily Bazelon asked on Slate.com.

“Judging by Michelle Obama’s speech, feminism is dead to the Democratic party, ” Lilith Dornhuber wrote on a feminist Web site’s community forum.

Author Katie Roiphe, who says she has had her own battles with fellow white feminists, calls these complaints misplaced. “I think there’s a certain unconstructive scrutiny going on in this certain population of white feminists on the blogosphere,” Roiphe says. “It’s such a naive definition of power to say that the first lady is not a working woman.”

This take — that Obama doesn’t exercise agency in her choices, that her anti-obesity, healthy-eating issues lack gravity, or that she’s not working — is one that many minority feminists and writers of color find ahistorical. They join the Michelle conversation from a different center and land on wildly different points.

By necessity and by choice, a majority of black women have been working outside the home at least since the census began keeping track of their labor in 1972. There has never been a national effort to keep black women at home, caring sweetly for their children. They have always worked, and their work has never been a separate thing from their mothering.

“Feminists who wish that Obama would strike a blow for feminism and against stereotyped roles of women, too easily forget that all women are not burdened by the same stereotypes,” wrote Tami Winfrey Harris in a September article, “A Black Mom-in-Chief is Revolutionary: What White Feminists Get Wrong about Michelle Obama,” for the online magazine Clutch.

“There’s no denying that the emphasis as ‘mom-in-chief’ can be read as conservative,” says Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at Ohio State University who specializes in African American literature and feminist criticism. But black traditional families are rarely pictured in the mainstream, Mitchell says. And, “let’s be real about how much assumptions about black families being pathological really dictate public policy.”

“I just have a problem with the idea that Michelle Obama doesn’t work,” says author Joan Morgan, a visiting scholar at Stanford University. “It’s a basic anti-feminist argument to say the work she does in making sure her family is okay — that the girls are healthy and not caught up in the craziness of celebrity and acting out — is not valuable work.”

Morgan contends that some white feminists are unable to see beyond their own narrative. “Michelle is deeply personal to black women,” Morgan says, and if white feminists “took a modicum of interest in what black women’s lives were like, and took some time to learn about them, then we wouldn’t always end up in this place where there’s an issue or person that seems so polarizing, and we wouldn’t be standing on opposite sides of the chasm.”

Author Rebecca Walker, who writes about culture, identity and motherhood, is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. She says her mother told her of white female writers: “We read them, but really, they do not read us.”

That feminist notion of being on the same team is often absent when it comes to issues affecting women of color and their communities, says Walker, who is biracial and who says she finds the intense questioning of the first lady’s choices “tedious.”

Do we really think “that she would have more power as a hospital administrator than she would as first lady?” she asks.

Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez, an associate professor at the University of Texas who blogs for Ms. Magazine, has closely followed the anti-obesity work the first lady has done with American Indian, Latino and African American children — “with American children more broadly, but with a focus on minority children.”

Obama “refocuses the conversation around black womanhood and black motherhood away from the welfare queen and into the middle class,” Guidotti-Hernandez says. “It’s a different version of race and motherhood that as a nation, and for me as a Latina, is really important.”

In the second term, Guidotti-Hernandez says, she’d love to see the first lady take on women’s pay equity.

Roiphe would like to see her use her position to champion gun control.

Morgan says she’s “content with where Michelle is and what she does.”

Walker wants to see her “stay happy.”

As for a lot of other feminists, they’ve already cut their losses with Obama and are looking past her. All the way to 2016.

Scott Clement and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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