Monday, November 24, 2008


An article in The New York Times today looks at Michelle Obama's future as an well-educated, successful career woman who's about to become First Lady. We're told that there is a

passionate debate stirring among working mothers here and abroad as they watch Mrs. Obama finalize her transition from hospital executive to self-proclaimed mom-in-chief in the White House.

In addition, we're told,

While Mrs. Obama has publicly embraced her soon-to-be assumed role as first lady, many women remain deeply divided over whether she will become a pioneer or a dispiriting symbol of the limitations of modern working motherhood.

Here's the thing: the First Lady is not like other women. The First Lady should not be a "symbol of the limitations of modern working motherhood" because we expect things of her that we don't expect of, say, a female hospital executive in Chicago.

Where many other countries have a president and a prime minister, or a prime minister and a king or queen, or all three, America has just a president. Moreover, because we lack royalty, and are in great denial about our class system, we expect the White House to make up for that deficit by seeming rather regal. But the president has a big job. So we dump the responsibility for keeping the White House regal on the First Lady.

Maybe that would have changed if we'd elected Hillary Clinton; plugging Bill into the slot in which we've always imagined a grande dame managing a stately home might have reminded us that our expectations are somewhat silly.

Of course, there are other issues involved here, but at least one person quoted in the Times article gets the situation wrong:

Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of "Mommy Wars," an anthology of essays (Random House, 2006), argued on the NPR program "Tell Me More" that Mrs. Obama had been "put in a box" and was only celebrated in the news media after she decided "to put her family first."

I'd say she was celebrated only after she decided she'd never again say anything angry or controversial -- but that has less to do with being put in a mommy "box" than with some white people's fear of scary angry black people!!!

As the article notes, Cherie Blair kept practicing law. Carla Bruni keeps making records. Someday we're going to have a new-model First Lady (or First Gentleman or, gulp, First Dude). I don't think it'll happen until the genders flip, because we'll stop looking to the White House and thinking about fairy tales -- or maybe it'll happen when we finally have a family in the White House that doesn't resemble a '50s sitcom family in any way. Until then, we'll probably keep demanding illusion -- almost certainly, I suspect, through the Obama years.

No comments: