Michelle Obama strode onto the Democratic convention stage last week, every detail locked down with the precision of a space shuttle launch. Overhead, Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours underlined her commitment to her husband’s re-election—in contrast to the soul music icon’s more tentatively titled Isn’t She Lovely?, played before her convention keynote in 2008. Anyone familiar with fashion semiotics could see her glamorous, sleeveless pink silk jacquard dress was a sartorial counterpunch to the conservative “Nancy Reagan red” shirtwaist Ann Romney wore to address the Republican national convention: Obama custom ordered hers from rising African-American designer Tracy Reese; Romney’s came from old-guard society designer Oscar de la Renta. The outfit exuded a fiscal subtext as well: Reese’s creation, rushed into production, will sell for under $500; the de la Renta retails for $1,990. And Ph.D. theses could be written on the Obama’s choice of pink, down to her shoes, quickly identified as $245 “Everly” pumps in “rhubarb” from J. Crew: it’s feminine, fun, unthreatening—but a colour also associated with gay rights. Her signature bare arms showcased her physical strength, as well as her disciplined pre-dawn workouts.
So it came as a surprise that Michelle Obama’s impassioned “I love my husband even more than I did four years ago” endorsement would trigger critical blowback from many of the very women who championed her. The reason? The first lady had muted her elite credentials to enter—some say win—a “mom-off” with Ann Romney, whose encomium to “moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right,” was blasted by Democrats for being out of touch with the fact that American men now do approximately 40 per cent of the housework and child-rearing duties.
Similar vestiges of a Mad Men time warp were evident in Obama’s presentation. The warm-up video focused exclusively on her accomplishments as a mother. No reference was made to her impressive CV: degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School and big jobs that made her the primary breadwinner and saw her with challenges like most working mothers. She was then introduced by Elaine Byre, a mother of five, four in the armed forces, who highlighted her own maternal bona fides: “I’m not a political person, but I’m a mom,” Byre told the crowd.
Obama delivered a speech as heartfelt as it was carefully orchestrated. Her focus was on values and perseverance—less “hope,” more “hang in there.” She trumpeted her husband’s women’s rights record—passing equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation and his belief that “women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and health care.” And she referenced his “single mother who struggled to pay the bills” and grandmother who hit the glass ceiling. But her greatest tribute was to her father, who, though afflicted with degenerative multiple sclerosis, supported a family of four on a pump operator’s salary. “For my dad, that’s what it meant to be a man,” she said. She ended with a soaring oratory that traced the “great American dream”—the War of Independence, suffrage, the fight for civil rights and the right for gays to marry. Then, a surprise twist: “And I say all of this tonight not just as first lady, and not just as a wife. You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’ ”
The speech garnered thunderous applause and rave reviews. “After last night, I want to nominate a man smart enough to marry Michelle Obama,” Bill Clinton gushed. She had aced the assignment: to appeal to jaded Democrats and much-coveted undecided female voters.
Yet the first lady’s own loyal female base bristled at what seemed a Stepfordized message. Joanne Bamberger, the Washington-based author of Mothers of Intention: How Women & Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, watched the address with a group of women in Charlotte, N.C. “Every head snapped back at the ‘mom-in-chief’ line,” she says. “It was, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ ” Though impressed by the speech, Bamberger was disappointed by Obama’s recycling of “mom-in-chief.” It felt like a political pander, she says.
On Feministing.com, Lilith Dornhuber was more scathing: “Judging by Michelle Obama’s speech, feminism is dead to the Democratic party,” she wrote, accusing the first lady of “valorizing mid-20th-century gender roles.” Women tweeted their frustration. “I long for the day when powerful women don’t need to assure Americans that they’re moms above all else,” said Jessica Valenti, a 33-year-old American feminist author. Bamberger, who writes the popular blog PunditMom, is concerned about women increasingly being shoved into the “mom box.” “First it was soccer moms, now it’s suburban moms,” she says. “But nobody’s talking about struggling moms. It’s only moms like Ann Romney.” She views the rhetoric, mostly from the political far right, as a bid to contain women: “It’s a pushback to equal pay, and access to reproductive health care.” A pop culture in momentary thrall to “mom chic” reinforces the message—an obsession with celebrity “baby bumps” and maternity conferring redemption, as witnessed by former Jersey Shore miscreant Snooki proudly holding her baby on the cover of last week’s People.
Unsurprisingly, the “mommy wars”—a manufactured, media-stoked conflict that pits the “stay-at-home” moms against “working” moms—has taken on renewed traction. Kick-started by Hillary Clinton’s 1992 remark that instead of working as a lawyer, she “could have stayed home and baked cookies,” the issue was reignited this spring with Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s comment that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” after Mitt Romney credited his wife with keeping him abreast of women’s economic concerns. Ann Romney fired back on Twitter: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” Democrats, including the Obamas, rushed to voice their disapproval of Rosen’s remark. Nobody wants to alienate female voters, hence Ann Romney’s “I love you women!” shout-out and Michelle Obama’s calculated career-washing.
Nadia Brown, an assistant professor of political science at St. Louis University who specializes in African-American studies, sees the conflation of women with mothers as systemic and deeply rooted: “American politics hasn’t found a way to speak about womanhood outside of motherhood,” she says. “There’s no conversation about women as extended humanity or even full citizens. It’s inevitably a discussion focused on health care, gender discrimination, abortion or the feminization of poverty.”
Nowhere is the disconnect more apparent than the straightjacket worn a president’s wife, a position whose public political agency has shrunken steadily since Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspoken activism more than 50 years ago. The public’s distaste for an equal presidential couple was seen in the backlash to the Clinton’s “two-for-the-price of one” pledge. The first family template—dad working outside the house, mom presiding within—is a national ideal utterly out of sync with the fact that 70 per cent of American women who work outside the home have children under 18; and the majority of single-parent families, a growing demographic, are headed by women. Yet the image of a loving nuclear family clearly sells in an era of household disintegration. Thus the 21st-century pressure for the first lady to be a meta beta, a fashionable June Cleaver—unsalaried but with a title, office and budget. The prospect of her fulfilling ambitions outside the home, as British prime minister’s wives do, is unthinkable.
In this context, Michelle Obama’s “mom-in-chief” comment is code, says Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women In Media & News, a New York City media analysis, education and advocacy group. “It served double-duty,” says Pozner. “To middle-of-the-road voters, it says, ‘I’m not going to be involved in policy decisions.’ But more political moms will hear her say, ‘I know women’s rights are under attack—and I care about women’s rights and policies that are good for families.’ ” Obama sent out that signal under the radar in 2009 when she hired Jocelyn Frye, a former general counsel for a Washington-based non-profit known for advocating family-friendly leave policies, as her director of policy and programs.
But Michelle Obama’s most recent identification as “mom-in-chief” is the logical political extension of the role she took on after the election, when she said helping her girls adjust to a normal life in the Washington fishbowl was her priority. Her biography on WhiteHouse.gov echoes the sentiment: “When people ask first lady Michelle Obama to describe herself, she doesn’t hesitate to say that first and foremost, she is Malia and Sasha’s mom.” That she’s a tough mother has been well-broadcast: the Obama girls are allowed technology only on weekends; no cellphone until age 12, no Facebook until age 17, homework done a day early, written reports on travels; and two sports must be played, one they choose, the other chosen by their mother.
But as the first African-American first lady, “mom-in-chief” takes on new, even radical resonance, Brown says. It’s also one more noxious minefield of racist and sexist stereotypes Michelle Obama has had to navigate since the 2008 campaign. Back then, the five-foot-eleven high-achiever was required to “soften and feminize” her appearance for political consumption. “She didn’t poll well in power suits,” says Brown. “She came off as overbearing and emasculating, like Sapphire,” she says, referring to the Amos ’n’ Andy character known for putting down her man and turning everything into a fight. Out went Mrs. O joking about her husband’s “morning breath,” in came J. Crew cardigans, frocks and flats.
Her “Let’s Move” program, designed to eliminate childhood obesity, is also coded with a covert political message, observers say. Photo ops of Michelle Obama hula hooping, pulling organic carrots in the White House garden, doing push-ups on Ellen, and presenting a “Barack-oli” bust of her husband on Late Show with David Letterman may appear frivolous, a waste of her formidable intellect. Yet through the lens of race, she’s groundbreaking, says Pozner. “A Caucasian first lady focusing on childhood obesity would be seen to be focused on body image. But lack of access to fresh food in many U.S. neighbourhoods makes obesity a serious race and class issue,” she says. “There are real health concerns; it definitely has public policy implications,” she says.
As an educated, nurturing mother figure, Michelle Obama has become “the new Clair Huxtable,” says Brown, a role model offering a positive counterpoint to the “welfare queen” stereotype of African-American mothers that dates to Ronald Reagan. It’s a trope recently resurrected by Republican candidates who’ve called President Obama the “food-stamp President.”
The night of his wife’s speech, however, the President was a stay-at-home dad, photographed curled up on the White House couch with a daughter on each side, watching his wife “work” the room—and the nation. The image, circulated broadly, telegraphed another message: that a parent travelling on business needs domestic backup; the President had remained in Washington to be with Malia on her first day of high school.
What they saw that night was American history in the making: a singular first lady acquiescing to the political tolerances of a nation, to the point of retrofitting her own identity. The result? The lesson that formidable political force can take many shapes. Sometimes it even comes dressed as a mom in a pretty pink dress.