Motherhood and Michelle

Over on my blog and on Racialicious, I recently wrote about the difference in how white women and black women view the MSM’s feminizing of First Lady Michelle Obama (i.e. it’s focus on her clothes, appearance and role as a mother.) 

Most mainstream media are on board the FLOTUS love train. They call the First Lady beautiful. They love her unique style. They cherish those awesome, toned arms. They love her modern marriage. They celebrate her role as a mother. All of this talk about appearance and being a wife and mother–stereotypical feminine ideals–is driving some white feminists to distraction. They think this focus diminishes Michelle Obama’s considerable intellect and professional achievements. Most black women I know see things differently. The so-called feminine ideal is a tyranny to all women, but it is white women who stand as its embodiment. In the public consciousness, black women are almost never the most beautiful ones or the good wives or mothers. White women see Michelle Obama getting pushed into a feminized role and lament that this always happens to women. Many black woman recognize that it rarely happens to us and we are happy that people are finally recognizing our femininity.

Neither the white ideal nor the black stereotype–Michelle Obama is fiercely herself. And seeing that self lauded as beautiful, strong and feminine does some good for black women and girls. Read more… 

In that post, I didn’t spend much time on Michelle Obama’s role as a mother. I should have, because much has been made of the Princeton grad and accomplished attorney’s decision to focus on motherhood, while her husband is in office.

In Salon’s Broadsheet column, Rebecca Traister wrote:

But with progress comes inevitable regress, and in our stouthearted dash to fit this family into a comfortably familiar tableau, we have fallen back into other, far too familiar, cultural traps: you know, like forgetting everything we’ve learned in recent decades about female achievement and identity.

The majority of the coverage of Michelle Obama in the week since her husband was elected has centered on her clothes. Not just the firecracker of a dress she donned on Election Night, but on her personal style, and what she will wear to the Inaugural balls.

Then there have been the oceans of transition pieces, about the adjustments the family will have to make as they move to Washington. In Newsweek came news that Michelle has been consulting with her husband’s former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, talking not about politics or law but about how to raise children in the White House.

The Associated Press wondered what kind of first lady Michelle will be, and concludes, “the kind of first lady this country has not seen in decades.” You mean, the kind with a high-powered job? No, “the mother of young children.” True enough, and the AP story did include the fact that Michelle is known to be her husband’s closest advisor. But it made sure to emphasize the campaign’s assertions that “she is not interested in shaping policy or reserving a seat for herself at her husband’s decision-making table. She prefers, at least for now, to focus on easing the transition for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 — getting them in new schools, settled and comfortable with a new way of life.” Indeed, Michelle herself has been flogging the term “mom-in-chief” as the cheerily unthreatening title she’ll assume when she gets to the White House. Read more…

Traister’s point of view echoes that of many of my white feminist sisters. I’ve read similar posts across the blogosphere. The problem is that this point of view imposes the white female experience on women of color, specifically in this case, black women.

Black women have never been viewed as primarily mothers of our OWN children. (ARP columnist Deesha Philyaw wrote an excellent article for Bitch magazine about the invisibility of black mothers in books and media about parenting.) When it was thought that women (read: white women) were too delicate of mind and body to work hard in and outside of the home, black women were largely excluded from that bit of sexism. We were the work horses.

Our culture is comfortable with black women working. In pop culture, we pop up as police women and judges and attorneys and professional caretakers, etc. But whenever we pop up, we rarely are given real lives outside of our work. The love of significant others or children or friends is usually reserved for the “ideal” woman.

Also, when it comes to real life choices, fewer black women, of any social strata, are able or expected to make the choice to be full-time mothers, regardless of what they might want to do.

Sexism subjects women to many tyrannies, but intersectionality ensures that all women are not subjected to the same ones. That America recognizes Michelle Obama as the black mother of black children, that she is comfortable and able to make the personal decision to choose motherhood for a time, I think, is a good thing. It represents a step outside of the stereotype trifecta of Mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel that is the black woman’s burden.

Readers?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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