Since 2008, voices from every corner of the media have emerged to express doubt and disappointment in Michelle Obama’s performance in the White House. Many of these voices concentrate on the lack of the FLOTUS’s attempts to bring feminism to the black community, a demographic historically excluded from the framework of feminist thought.
Her position as both a political and cultural icon gives her the opportunity to re-define feminism on a public platform, perhaps shifting the perception of the term to be more attractive to women of color. But when the Washington Post dropped the f-bomb in 2007, Obama ducked and dodged. “You know, I'm not that into labels, so probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it," she said. "I wouldn't identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn't identify as a liberal or a progressive."
Given the incredibly polarized political atmosphere and conservative demonization of feminism, feminists, and women in general, its no surprise that the first lady decided against a hard line stance on feminism as a label, preferring “Mom-in-Chief.” And indeed, thus far Obama has championed childhood nutrition as her cause, a suitable one for a “Mom-in-Chief.” But this label, too, has come under fire.
Debra Dickerson at Salon is one of many who has expressed disappointment from the beginning in Michelle Obama’s “Mom-in-Chief” rhetoric and decisions, criticizing both Obama herself and the political atmosphere in which she exists that demands women function as wives and mothers in order to get their husbands elected.
However, many black feminists are saying that Obama as “Mom-in-Chief” is as radical and important, or maybe more so, than Obama as a feminist. Women of color have been culturally stereotyped as separate from, and often in opposition to, the ideal motherhood of soccer moms and PTA presidents. It is a stereotype created by and for the wealthy white majority, so it is no wonder that women of color and impoverished women fail to achieve that standard. In turn, the white-dominated culture responds with negative stereotypes that question the abilities of women. Tami Winfrey Harris at Clutch magazine comments, “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.”
During her second term, freed from the constraints of re-election, Michelle could employ her position as a link between traditional self-identified feminists and women of color who reject that label to find a common ground. Her power as a leader, compelling gifts as a speaker, and seemingly limitless poise could begin a movement to create solid alliances between the feminist community and other activist groups.
So basically, what Michelle Obama is doing wrong is also what she’s doing right. And hopefully during her second term she will find a way to bring those two feuding sides of her fan club together.