Womanist Musings is on a roll today

This the second repost of the day. As usual, Renee is killing it:
Once again, there is a conversation in the mainstream press about whether Michelle Obama is feminist enough. Her platform is being debated, as well as her decision to identify as “Mom-in-Chief.” This conversation really brings to fore the breach between White feminists and many Black women. Feminism has a long history of racism and these issues have yet to be settled. Black women are told that we should privilege gender over and above any other marginalization that we must also negotiate, while many White feminists continue to ignore that Black women have often had very different organizing goals. Michelle Obama isn’t just the First Lady of the United States; she is the first Black First Lady and over and above her educational and professional accomplishments, Mrs. Obama represents a view of black womanhood that is often eschewed by the media.

When Michelle Obama said, “For the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country,” the media had a field day, and she was quickly benched by President Obama’s election campaign. As much as feminists may want a more vocal and assertive First Lady, I cannot help but wonder what they would do if they actually got their wish. Are they even capable of understanding that being an educated wife and mother under the gaze of a 24-hour news media is indeed political for a Black woman?

The question feminists should be asking isn’t whether or not Michelle Obama is feminist enough, but why the role of the First Lady is so limited. First Ladies are expected to take a peripheral role in government and support initiatives which are considered safe and do not challenge their husband’s policy directives. She is meant to comfort Middle America while appearing as arm candy for the President. Any First Lady who has sought to step even marginally outside of this role has been pilloried by the press.

Many liberal feminists have deified Hillary Clinton as the feminist political representative. Though Hillary Clinton was not the first woman to run for president, no other woman has come as close to winning their party’s nomination for president. Clinton was the first to have her own office in the West Wing and she even led former President Clinton’s failed bid at healthcare reform. Bill and Hillary made it clear that by electing him, the American people were getting “two for the price of one,” yet Hillary Clinton was seen as interfering in government business, even though her education and work history clearly made her labour valuable to the American public. Hillary was repeatedly and resoundingly skewered by the right-wing press. For many, Hillary was simply a woman who didn’t know her place. It has become common practice to claim that constant public attacks have no effect on their target, but the truth of the matter is, one would have to be an automaton not to have an emotional response to repeated attacks based solely in one’s marginalisation. There absolutely was a personal cost to the role that Hillary played in the Clinton administration.

Before Michelle Obama opens her mouth to say a single word, her identity as a black woman fills far too many with a racist rage. While some would argue that Mrs. Obama’s platform is reductive to women because she heavily couches her labour in rhetoric about motherhood, few are willing to recognize that the First Lady is working to combat deeply racist stereotypes, which have historically constructed black women as licentious welfare queens. As feminists are wont to say, the personal is political, and no one represents that better than Michelle Obama.

In Michelle Obama, the populace has the most educated First Lady in American history, but not only is she constrained by her race, but by the limited roles that Americans expect the First Lady to play in government. Already, the American public gains immensely from Michelle Obama’s intelligence, work experience and charm, and they do so without spending a dollar to compensate her for her time and energy. The perks of being First Lady do not amount to a salary, and furthermore, no professional person would settle for perks in lieu of an actual salary. While Hillary may have been seen as a harpy, there can be no doubt that Obama would be painted as an uppity angry black woman should she even attempt to mirror Hillary’s work in the West Wing. How much character assassination and free labour would these upset feminists have Michelle Obama deal with just so that she can perform their construction of what a working, educated, Black woman should look like?

The ability to choose is supposedly essential to feminist discourse and yet Michelle Obama’s choices are constantly up for debate. No one bothers to ask why she even owes the government or the people of the United States anything and yet she exists in a sphere in which expectations and criticism are common place. The ability to choose should leave room for women to prioritize motherhood without being attacked, just as it should leave room for women who choose to focus on their careers without getting married or having kids. There is always going to be someone one who is going to unsatisfied by the job that Michelle Obama is doing, but she is not a public official, nor has she taken any oath to serve the people and though she is leading a very public life, Mrs. Obama is still a private citizen. Even more importantly, advocacy is hard work and each person has a right to choose how they negotiate a marginalization that affects them, because it is the individual who will bear the brunt of the consequences.

Until the work of First Lady is a paid position and is tasked with duties beyond the frivolous, no effort on the part of any woman is going to bring about significant change. The position of First Lady is devalued because it is work performed by women, and because it is unpaid. By virtue of our patriarchal culture, the work of the First Lady is deemed to be nurturing work, which all women perform, though to a lesser extent which supports the public sphere. The role of the First Lady isn’t devalued because Michelle Obama isn’t feminist enough, but because our entire economic structure uses sexism to exploit women’s labour. By simply continuing to be a positive role model as a wife and a mother, Michelle Obama is doing wonders for Black women and girls across the globe. It may not be what mainstream feminists have in mind, but choice is about having the freedom to chart our own path in life.

Comments

  1. Alex Raventhorne1/31/13, 5:19 PM

    Thanks for this. Gets to one of my top 3 problems with how women treat each other. There is such a lack of respect for an individual woman's right to choose. And it is particularly upsetting when it's a feminist showing that disrespect. Michelle Obama is under no duty to live her life the way another person wants her to - end of story. The frequently communicated idea that any woman not working long hours in a high-powered job has let down all of womanhood is insane. Similarly insane is the idea that any woman with children should not work outside the home as it is her duty to be the ever present provider of care to her children. I can't roll with women who can't respect other women's choices. I just can't.

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  2. How do I email Womanist Musings? I have been trying to do that for the past 2 weeks.

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    1. I think you can email Renee at this address: womanistmusings@gmail.com. I've been a reader for a while and I think this is the address that anyone interested in guest posts is encouraged to use, so you may be able to get in touch with her this way.

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  3. I truly admire Michelle Obama, and the way white feminists act like she's a corrosive force on their movement reeks of elitism and racism.

    Excellent article on Womanist Musings/Renee's part.

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    1. No matter how many times white feminists are told that Black women have different needs than they do, it's like they forget every time. IN one ear and out the other; every conversation starts at the same place the previous one started.

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    2. No, they do not like any conversation that does not put their needs and agenda front and center. They refuse to acknowledge intersectionality or the fact that WOC face barriers that they do not since we lack their white privilege. And they want to interpret everything through their white, Western, lens so anyone whose values are different is clearly just an stupid, oppressed person who needs to be freed and enlightened by them.

      They want to dictate the conversation and tell you what you should worry about, what you should be offended by and why, and what is and isn't progress which is why I think many black women who are independent and progressive run from the label "feminist."

      Michelle Obama being portrayed as the pretty and feminine woman that she is represents a very big win for black women, esp. dark skinned black women who do not have wavy or cury hair. The fact that the straightens hers does not fool anyone into thinking that she does not have black hair.

      And hearing a black man regularly talking lovingly of his wife and daughters for their inteliigence and their beauty is something that millions of black women and girls benefit from hearing.
      I think one thing that makes them uncomfortable of the rise of FLOTUS is that she can go toe to toe with their deity Hillary Clinton but also possess style, glamour, and looks the people wish to emulate. They don't like not being on top of the beauty pyramid. So they then want to portray faux outrage that so much attention is paid to Michelle Obama's looks and not her education, or that her focus as first lady is more about kids and not involving herself in governing.

      They willfully choose to ignore the fact that her lucrative and successful professional career is what allowed POTUS to pursue first community activism and later politics. Yet somehow the fact that she opted to move to DC and focus on her family is a sign that she is oppressed and misguided. See, they don't get that we have always worked. So feminism didn't give us the option to stop getting taken care of. Working black mothers is our history in this country. What has changed, and it is thanks to Civil Rights, which is really what gives them so much now even though they want to rewrite history to say it was Gloria Steinem, is that we get to sit in the office buildings and hospitals and city halls and not just clean them, or better yet, we aren't stuck taking care of their children for them either.

      If they were not so blind to their white privilege they would acknowledge that the failed attempt Hillary made to govern would not even be tolerated from Michelle Obama.

      I just saw a post on Racialicious about Aimee Fatimah, and young Muslim/Indian American blogger/comic artist and she does a great job of breaking down the ways that white feminists are dismissive and condescending in terms of the ways they view the choices and agenda of WOC. Her comments are so well-stated that you should check them out b/c I love it when someone puts things so beautifully and brilliantly. And she is only 21.

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    3. If they were not so blind to their white privilege

      But that's just it. I don't think they're blind. Or forgetting anything.

      The shade/critiques they hurl at Michelle Obama are quite deliberate and self-aware. They're doing it on purpose and doing it in such a way as to appear either clueless or well-meaning or both.

      The fact that a First Lady being a black, dark-skinned, well-educated, and a voluntary mom-in-chief is revolutionary is not lost on these white feminists. They know very well that it is; they don't like it, they're threatened by it, and they seek to undermine it.

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    4. Yes, you're right. I feel as though the majority of them at least minor in derailing in college...

      It's so funny that they attempt to pretend that they adore her but you know they resent the hell out of so much that she is, and really think that one of them should be sitting in the White House with the POTUS.

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  4. I love Michelle Obama. Of course, I hate her war on fat people - goddammit, I wish she'd get into the Health At Every Size movement and realize that FAT =/= UNHEALTHY - but I love her intelligence, class, activism, and amazing fashion sense. If she doesn't work outside the White House - then who gives a rat's bum?

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  5. Perla Buttons2/2/13, 7:08 PM

    I feel this jpg is rage-inducingly pertinent to this discussion. This is a little bit of the shit Michelle Obama is up against:
    http://www.frugal-cafe.com/public_html/frugal-blog/frugal-cafe-blogzone/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/michelle-obama-ghetto-fabulous-clown-fashion.jpg

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