Michelle Obama and Beyoncé Knowles are both powerful women married to powerful men. They are friends. Their families have spent time together. They praise each other publicly and support each other’s projects.
Few would be surprised if Knowles is in town for the first lady’s 50th birthday party later this month. (Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z, will be in concert at Verizon Center on Jan. 16, the day before Obama’s birthday.)
As their friendship has developed, these two women have — wittingly or not — become markers of 21st-century feminism.
“They are incredibly competent women who have not just flourishing careers but flourishing marriages and flourishing children. That’s a very inspiring feminist message,” says Anna Holmes, a New York-based writer and the founder of the popular women’s Web site Jezebel. “It’s not contrived, but by default it feels very revolutionary.”
It is complicated, of course.
But, taken together, the public statements and choices made by Michelle Obama and Beyoncé represent a specific feminist strain of thinking on women, work and family, students of feminism say, that could rightly be called Beyoncéism.
The global pop star’s latest contribution to her brand of feminism came last month with the surprise release of a self-titled visual album, which includes the song “***Flawless.” It samples generously from a TEDx Talk given by acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “We Should All Be Feminists.”
In the video version of the song, Beyonce pumps her fist as Adichie defines a feminist as one “who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
Michelle Obama, who has not declared herself a feminist in an overt way, has used her platform to discuss some similar issues. At a White House reception for International Women’s Day in 2011, the first lady spoke about the importance of pay equity, celebrated women who have broken barriers and quoted the self-proclaimed “womanist” writer Alice Walker: “So our mothers and grandmothers have more often than not anonymously handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see.”
To Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, the example set by both women — in the public eye, constructing success as they appear to want to — is a high-water mark.
“From the standpoint of black America, we would be hard-pressed to think of another time when we’ve had two such examples of what it means to be a successful black woman on their own terms,” he says.
As they negotiate issues around women and power on the public stage, the first lady and the pop superstar have drawn criticism for how they have presented themselves and their choice to nurture family lives while throttling back their careers. The Ivy League-educated Obama has called herself “mom-in-chief.” The independently famous Knowles named her ongoing tour “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour” in a nod to her husband. The singer has also been knocked by a set of feminist thinkers for her overt displays of sexuality.
That criticism leads to the questions:
Can a pop superstar be feminist if she gyrates on the roof of a car in a music video?
Can a first lady be feminist if she plants a garden and talks little about her law degree?
The ongoing conversations about the first lady and Beyoncé are part of a robust rebirth of discussion about feminism in recent years. Online, Beyoncé’s new record spawned dozens of essays dissecting her music and her feminism. A controversial article in Politico Magazine deeming Michelle Obama a “feminist nightmare” was one of the magazine’s most-read articles of 2013.
“I’m heartened that people want to talk about feminism and women’s lives,” says Holmes, “but there are times when these discussions turn into a purity or litmus test that isn’t particularly helpful.”
Stephanie Coontz, who writes on feminism and family history, sees both women making “accommodation to the fact that we are still locked into certain kinds of limited choices and behaviors.”
People do not pay enough attention to the constraints that push women into choosing particular actions or identities, says Coontz, who teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”
“What may be a choice that may be individually empowering to a woman still may perpetuate a set of limited options for women — that you can either be a strong career woman or a professional woman; either a buttoned-down prude or a sexual object,” she says. “Women are still caught in these double-binds.”
Knowles seemed to indirectly answer such critiques in her lyrics, professing ownership over her career and family life. “I took some time to live my life. But don’t think I’m just his little wife,” she raps on “***Flawless.”
Obama’s fans hope she will be freer to respond to her own critics in her post-White House years.
“Many of us can’t wait to read the Michelle Obama memoir somewhere down the road,” Neal says. “She may have sacrificed some of her personal ambition to be supportive of her husband, but we don’t get the idea that she won’t go back into the world and be the kind of woman she was before.”
Beyoncé and Michelle Obama make up a high-profile mutual admiration society and seem to have a genuine friendship. Their public connection was established when Knowles sang “At Last” as the Obamas danced at an inaugural ball in 2009. The next year, Knowles and her husband toured the White House and took photos in the situation room. Around the same time, the singer recorded “Move Your Body,” a song in support of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” program. Michelle Obama has taken her daughters to Beyoncé’s concerts more than once. When People magazine asked the first lady who she would like to trade places with, Michelle Obama named Beyoncé, saying she would like to be a great singer.
Knowles and her husband also supported President Obama’s reelection campaign, holding a $40,000-per-ticket fundraiser. And Knowles has written an open letter and a poem celebrating Michelle Obama as an inspiration.
Their relationship has ruffled some feathers. Allison Samuels, the author of “What Would Michelle Do?,” suggested in a column last year that Beyoncé is not an ideal friend for the first lady, given the singer’s sometimes-controversial lyrics and attire.
The friendship, which others celebrate, and the high profile of both women underscore the historic relationship between black women and feminism, says Neal, who considers himself a “black male feminist.”
“Black feminism is something that’s very organic and very malleable, depending on an individual,” he says. It has never been a particular set of dictums, he says. When white feminists were claiming their place in the workforce, black women had been both working and mothering for generations.
“Both Beyoncé and Mrs. Obama come from working-class and middle-class backgrounds. That has influenced them as wives and mothers,” says Neal, who noted the strength of the example each woman is setting by defining success on her own terms.
Kevin Allred, who teaches a Rutgers University course titled “Politicizing Beyoncé,” agrees. “They explicitly allow for a focus on black women’s right to self-determination,” he says.
Looking at both women in relationship to their husbands is also telling, says Rebecca Traister, author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” about the 2008 election.
She points out that Obama met her husband when she was assigned to be his mentor at the law firm where she worked, and that Knowles met her husband when she was a teenager but told “Seventeen” magazine that she decided she would not marry before the age of 25 because she wanted to become her own person first.
“It’s hard to express how revolutionary it is to see powerful women living in equal partnerships with powerful men,” says Traister, who is working on a book about single women. “We have to remember how new that is in terms of what wifeliness is supposed to be.”
The president and first lady are an “equally matched couple in terms of personality, in terms of draw, in terms of the kind of energy that emanates from them,” Traister adds. And Knowles continues to innovate in her career and mature as an artist even as her husband succeeds.
That leads to an important question about the men standing beside these women, says Holmes.
“Maybe we should be talking about whether Jay-Z and Barack Obama are feminist,” she says.