It does my heart good to see women of all races embrace Michelle Obama. It is too rare indeed for a brown-skinned woman, a descendant of slaves, a product of Chicago’s South Side to be lauded on an international stage. Considering the heavy burden of stereotype still faced by black women, I cheer a little each time the First Lady gets some shine for her strength and smarts. But I note that in their eagerness to identify with Obama and make her emblematic of modern woman, some mainstream feminists unwittingly erase a key part of her identity–her blackness.–and deny the experiences and histories of many African American women in the process.

In her muchtalkedabout speech, last Wednesday, at the Democratic National Convention, Obama said her most important role is “mom-in-chief.” In analysis, this pronouncement along with the fact that Obama declined to talk about her own impressive career, was found disappointing by many in the white feminist chattering class.

Lisa Belkin wrote at the Huffington Post:

 Maybe that is why it was so jarring to hear again last night. So much about the context has changed — the Republicans are being accused of launching a “war on women”; the word “mom” is being used as shorthand for a sweet lady who knows her place; Michelle Obama has spent four years showing us that she is a mother, yes, but also a force of nature. All this makes the phrase feels loaded and out of place.

Jessica Valenti tweeted: “I long for the day when powerful women don’t need to assure Americans that they’re moms above all else.”

Slate’s Hanna Rosin tweeted: “ok “mom in chief” is not where i thought that sentence was headed. it was so soaring just before that.” Rosin went on to voice her discomfort with the phrase and Obama’s speech that seemed to put her own accomplishments on the back burner during Slate’s “Double X Gabfest,” where she was joined by Noreen Malone, who wrote about Obama’s speech for The New Republic:

 It’s a true and universally resonant sentiment. After all, Mrs. Obama is far more in the thick of raising kids than is Mrs. Romney. But I can’t help thinking of the martial roots of that “-in-chief” designation: the “mommy wars” that have been battled in the press over the last decades take as their baseline assumption that working moms and stay-at-home moms see their choices as in opposition. Generals Ann and Michelle want to broker a peace—one that’s awfully helpful politically; both need all the women—but it’s a little depressing that both see fit to do so by whitewashing out their own experiences for the sake of bland universality. After all, way back in 1996, even after taking a beating in the press for being a little too careerist, Hillary Clinton didn’t shy away from making a direct plea on behalf of working parents, and
talking about how that experience informed her husband’s platform.

Rosin wasn’t the only Slate writer unimpressed by Michelle Obama’s “mom-in-chief” line. In an article on Slate’s XX women’s blog, Libby Copeland ponders: Why Are Presidential Candidates’ Wives All theSame?”

The would-be first lady is self-sacrificing, and for years she has managed to somehow keep a household running with her husband off in Washington or wherever, and even though it’s nearly impossible, she doesn’t complain too much. The candidate’s job, in turn, is to give her all the credit for raising the kids and opening the mail, and occasionally to say (as Mitt did in his convention speech) that her job was even harder than his. (“She was heroic,” Mitt said of Ann. “Cindy will get her reward in heaven,” John McCain said in 2007.) Perhaps, like Michelle Obama, she complained a little, leaving Post-it reminders for himto pick his underwear up off the floor. But ultimately, she bravely goes along with his ambitious schemes.

Copeland’s analysis of what the public will accept from political wives has merit, but it is impossible for Michelle Obama to occupy the same space in this discussion as her forebears. She is a black woman. While white women have historically been thought, by default, to be possessed of ideal femininity, (sexistly) defined as demure, sacrificing, quietly strong, beautiful and maternal. Black women have not. The picture of black woman as Sapphire; welfare queen; baby mama; ball-buster; unmarriageable harpy who is too black, too fat and too nappy can be seen lurking behind much of the right’s–and some of the left’s–criticism of Michelle Obama. (Not only that, but Sapphire qualities are already being thrust upon the Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha, who the media is fond of imbuing with a sort of two-snaps-up-in-a-circle sassiness.)

White feminists who acknowledge Obama’s blackness, and the stereotypes attached to it, believe her “momification” is a shrewdly calculated answer to attacks on her as “Stokely Carmichael in a dress.” In her article, Malone endorses a similar analysis by Rebecca Traister in Salon. It is as if, even these smart women cannot believe that, alongside strong, black womanhood, Michelle Obama might have a nurturing, maternal side that is not politically manufactured but a part of who she is.

Black women in the public eye, including Michelle Obama, may not see the need to distance themselves from traditional roles, as Hillary Clinton once did, famously saying, “I am not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man.” and “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Cooking-baking, devoted wife and mother has never been a stereotype about us.

In “Aint I a Mommy?,” writer Deesha Philyaw discussed the absence of black women in national conversations about parenting.

Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter. Further, media overexposure of these women bolsters the perception of them as self-absorbed brewers of tempests in teapots.

Philyaw writes that historically, black women have rarely had the privilege to choose motherhood over career. Black women have always worked outside of the home–have almost always had to–even when society forbade “good” white women from leaving their pedestals. We have ploughed the fields and raised other folks babies, as well as our own. And as for many black women of my generation–women whose parents kicked down a host of racial barriers during the Civil Rights era and worked tirelessly to provide opportunity for their children–many of us were raised to do our family (and our race) proud through scholastic and professional achievement more than marriage and children. (I am glad of that, by the way.)

Philyaw adds:

Of course, black mothers are not endless founts of strength. Nor do we live charmed, guilt-free lives. Some black at-home mothers are asked by family and friends to justify the decision to “waste” their educations. Professional black mothers may have to forego material comforts and greater financial security in exchange for more flexibility and time at home with their kids. But all this struggling and striving happens in the context of our history. If a black mother’s household income is such that she can afford to stay at home with her kids or opt to pursue a career full-time instead—either way, we’ve arrived at a profound historical moment. Either way, she is living a life her foremothers could only dream about.

In contrast to some of the mainstream feminist analysis of Michelle Obama and her role in the White House, I have heard from many black women, including feminist ones, who are delighted to see an African American woman publicly celebrated in ways that we commonly are not. Michelle Obama is–refreshingly for many of us–lauded for being nurturing, beautiful and stylish as well as whip smart, athletic and strong. And we imagine that Obama has the strength to make her needs known and that if she has, for now, chosen motherhood, that it is the role she wants. She is a black woman free to make that choice. These things are revolutionary for black women, even if some white women see business as usual.

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. The way sexism visits white women and women of color, including black women, is similar in its devastation but often unique in its practice.

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  • Lisa M.

    We might do well to ignore the chatter coming from our paler sister friends. They are entitled to their opinions, but until they’ve walked a mile in our shoes, with the limitations and restrictions we continue to battle on a daily basis, all I’m hearing is noise.

  • This article opened my eyes, and dare I say changed my life. I am a 32 year old black feminist who went along with the chatter not really being able to make the connection.

    • Nehemiah53

      Valsays these radical feminist that seem to have a problem with the first lady describing her self as mom in chief are very much mis guided, it’s gas and the first lady is in her own way trying to signal to you black women/mother not to view your role as mother as less than they don’t understand that she were not talking to them [white feminist], if white women have a problem with it that’s on them and they are showing there ignorance there family had a 400 years lead on black family in this country, our problem are deferent the first lady knows this and in her own way is trying to signal to you black women when you decide to bring life into this world [nature gave only females that power] above all take your role as mother serious and above all career, title etc. be proud of motherhood, she know time is limited she might not get another shoot to get her massage over to you black women/mother. Michelle Obama is the greatest first Lady ever she is what black women need at this time as a model of strong women, mother, wife and leader only if black women learn to be smart and read between the lines when she is talking and pickup on what she is saying only to you thru her action and what she is saying, I as a black man admire her above her husband and love her.

    • felicia

      Michelle obama will be in the office for four more years. So this will be more inspiration and good things from her. Hate her you can move out of the country. I love Michelle and im glad you agree

  • Bestermor

    I am a 62-year-old white feminist. I absolutely love Michelle Obama. Her characterization of herself as “mom-in-chief” bugged me, because she is so much more than that. On the other hand, now that I have raised five children to adulthood and am grandma to eight (evenly divided between boys and girls), I can say that the work of being Mom was the most important thing of my live. And I didn’t always do it well. My parents were immigrants with an eighth-grade education. My mother was a hotel maid who worked her way up to head housekeeper. I was never rich or privileged; my sons’ father was abusive and not interested in supporting them in any way after the divorce. But because of that, I finished my education and now have a pretty darn comfortable life… and I like to think that I invested that self-determination in my children. I hope you can look at this issue from the standpoint of economic status rather than purely racial status and see that many of us old white broads share common ground with you.

    • Nehemiah53

      Sound like you were a mom in chief, no one is perfect, no one wrote a manual on parenting I admire your strength however our problem in the black family and community are deferent than whites, look at the news, we need strong dedicated mothers and father dedicated to parenting above all, we need less conflict between mother and father, males and females and more focus on parenting to solve our family and community problems so yes since mothers are the first teacher [males do not bring life into this world nature gave that power to females] women should and must not view motherhood as less than, society should hold motherhood in the highest esteem above all, career, titles etc. because mothers raise up great nation!

    • funka

      Though you share common ground on a class level you do not on a level of race both socially and systematically. It isn’t something that you need to be ashamed of but aware of and to understand that women of color from a background similar to your upbringing also must rise above, fight against and find support for the racism and oppression that still exist in this country. It is a very real thing and the best thing you can do is work to help stand with all women and understand their personal struggles in comparison to and outside of your own.

  • Sharon M

    I was one of those who got it wrong about First Lady Michelle Obama.
    This is an excellent article and wake up call.

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