Defined by Her Times and Defining Them, Mrs. Obama Is a First Among First Ladies

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By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The space underneath the photo of Michelle Robinson Obama in the "First Ladies" exhibit at the National Museum of American History is blank. The only thing that fills it is imagination.

The picture of Obama, wearing a short-sleeved turtleneck and tasteful stud earrings, sits across from Martha Washington's silk taffeta gown and down from the parasol of Sarah Polk.

Martha capably managed the family slave plantation when George was away and Sarah once said that framers of the Declaration of Independence had it wrong when they wrote that all men were created equal. Slaves, the first lady mused, and the mistresses who fanned themselves at the window while watching them work, "were created" for their roles.

Standing in front of the Obama picture, the low whispers of the room mix with echoes from the culture. A "Sesame Street" game: One of these things is not like the others.

Obama's picture, at the end of a long line of first ladies' images and artifacts, is a natural place for visitors to linger and project. It's what Americans have been doing with Michelle Obama since she first strode across a campaign stage two years ago. The attention has turned blinding since her husband, Barack Obama, was elected the 44th president and Barack, 47, Michelle, 45, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, the youngest first family in decades, the first African American first family, moved to Washington; since Michelle Obama became a standard-bearer for the nation.

"Over the years, the role of first lady has been perceived as largely symbolic," former first lady Hillary Clinton once said of the position. "She is expected to represent an ideal -- and largely mythical -- concept of American womanhood."

First lady is a position without constitutionally prescribed duties, but it's the closest person to the most powerful man in the world -- a position of unaccountable influence. To the weight of it all, Obama brings degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law, attractiveness, vitality, fitness. And she's a mother of two. A mommy.

"Michelle was so great in the campaign," Clair Ward enthuses, leaving the exhibit with three other 17-year-old classmates from Woodstock, Va. "It's kind of awesome that, like, we're around" to see history. Ward wants her to focus on environmental issues.

"I hope she gets involved more on a global scale," says Margot Gurganus.

"While maintaining her motherly role," says Hanna Lehnen.

"That's important, too," Jenny Hoye chimes in.

"She's going to be a role model for us all in the upcoming year -- like you really can have it all," Gurganus says.

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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