Again she was at the center of the open-ended conversation about working mothers that she entered in 2008, when she declared herself mom in chief and made clear her young daughters would be her top priority.
Where the first lady fits into the motherhood debate depends on “how we imagine the arc of her career,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor and former top policy adviser in the State Department who kicked off the latest round of chatter in an article in this month’s Atlantic magazine. Slaughter, who left her high-profile policy job after two years to spend more time with her family, said it may be too soon to analyze Obama’s choices.
Perhaps Obama, who has said she expects to always be a working mother of some sort, will return to a full-time professional career after her time in the White House.
“If we imagine that her career will follow the same arc as Hillary Clinton’s, then we can expect her to have a glittering career in her own right once her daughters go to college,” Slaughter said in an e-mail. “And she, like Secretary Clinton, will be in her early 50s when that happens.”
Others have been quicker to form an opinion. The “first mom, gardener thing” is “silly,” said Linda Hirshman, an author, lawyer and feminist. “I do admire the discipline and grit to see that this is the role that you have to play and play it. I could not do it.”
Obama is not the only well-educated professional woman to be first lady, nor is she the first to come with young children amid the “mommy wars.” Chelsea Clinton was in middle school in 1992 when her father was running for president, and her mother declared on behalf of her generation of liberal women that they had not “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” but chose instead to fulfill their professions.
Obama, who was an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center when her husband first ran for president, has taken a different approach, sharing recipes on Pinterest, the online social network. And when Hilary Rosen, a Democratic lobbyist and pundit, said stay-at-home mom Romney had never worked a day in her life, the first lady tweeted, “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.” Rosen apologized.
When Bill Clinton was running for election in 1992 and reelection four years later, Hillary Clinton, who had helped craft a health-care proposal and would eventually run for president, also submitted a cookie recipe for Family Circle magazine’s presidential spouse cookie bake-off.
“Coming so soon in the first-ladies lineup after Hillary Clinton and all of the criticism [she] received for being a nontraditional first lady, anyone holding that role is going to be a little more cautious,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of women’s history at Ohio University who has studied first ladies.