I must give credit to Melissa Harris-Perry for mentioning this article on her Open Letters segment on Saturday’s show. I had no idea about this article until she mentioned it. “Leaning Out,” written by Michelle Cottle at Politico, basically includes a bunch of feminists whining about how Michelle Obama has become a “nightmare” for feminism.
The writer, and the sources she cites, laments that the First Lady isn’t using her bully pulpit enough to become the 21st century version of Hillary Clinton. They want more
sass, finger wagging, neck-rolling activism, and less focus on gardens, fighting obesity and her children.
So enough already with the pining for a Michelle Obama who simply doesn’t exist. The woman is not going to morph into an edgier, more activist first lady. The 2012 election did not set her free. Even now, with her husband waddling toward lame duck territory, she is not going to let loose suddenly with some straight talk about abortion rights or Obamacare or the Common Core curriculum debate. Turns out, she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice. “We got exactly what we were told we were going to get,” Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, reminds me. “When the Obamas were campaigning in 2008, the American people were informed that she was going to primarily be taking care of her children.”
And this is what nags at Cottle. She is not here for the Michelle Obama who makes it clear that her primary focus will be the well-being of her two beautiful black daughters. She goes on…
The post of first lady is never easy, bringing with it all of the scrutiny but none of the power of the presidency. Trickier still, first ladies tend, to varying degrees, to get swept up in the debate du jour over how much progress women are (or are not) making in our society. “Any time you’re in that kind of position, with that kind of visibility and power, you become iconic,” observes feminist and author Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker. “You become a lightning rod for everyone to project and work out and discuss all their issues about femininity.”
And this particular first lady carried a uniquely heavy load of expectations. Michelle Obama’s status as the first African-American first lady raised hopes that she would focus a spotlight on the myriad problems eating away at minority communities. At the same time, her Ivy League degrees, career success and general aura as an ass-kicking, do-it-all superwoman had some women fantasizing that she would, if not find a clever way to revive the 2-for-1 model pitched by the Clintons so long ago, at least lean in and speak out on a variety of tough issues.
It was not to be. At first, many saw politics in Michelle Obama’s discretion; perhaps, they theorized, she would be liberated once the hassles of winning reelection were behind them. Early in Obama’s campaign last year, columnist Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of Mommy Wars, grumped, “Are fashion and body-toning tips all we can expect from one of the most highly educated First Ladies in history?” Observed Steiner, “I for one have seen enough of her upper appendages and her designer clothes, and read enough bland dogma on home-grown vegetables and aerobic exercise, to last me several lifetimes.” (Steiner did, however, posit hopefully that, whether or not the president won reelection, “freedom from popularity polls will mean more straight talk from his wife.”)
As for the first lady’s warmer, fuzzier PR efforts—the televised workouts and kids-show cameos and “mom dancing” with Jimmy Fallon—Hirshman, a retired Brandeis University professor who set off a firestorm with her 2005 American Prospect article asserting that women who leave the workforce to raise their children are making a huge mistake, contends: “After the feminist revolution, you don’t envision a brilliantly educated, well-connected grown woman doing that kind of thing.”
But do it she has—and more. Frustration flared when the first lady stumbled into the raging heart of the Mommy Wars. In her speech to the Democratic National Convention last summer, she dropped in the line that “at the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.” Much of the nation may have been charmed; feminist commentators, not so much. “Why does mom-in-chief have to be the most important thing this strong, vibrant woman tells us about herself as she flexes the strange but considerable power of the office of first lady?” Emily Bazelon lamented on Slate. On the feminist website Feministing, Lilith Dornhuber was even harsher: “Judging by Michelle Obama’s speech, feminism is dead to the Democratic Party.”
There are more nuggets like that in the article. Interestingly enough, Cottle tosses a few bones to two black women as an obvious effort to avoid the criticism of only interviewing white women for a piece about a black woman. And, ironically enough, those two women pretty much served to compliment her argument. Don’t we all just love when those tokens come in handy?
To be fair to Cottle, she isn’t the first white woman to roll her eyes and sigh at the sight of Michelle Obama taking control of how she spends her time. White women for the past five years have been seething at the idea that Michelle Obama is championing the traditional lifestyle second-wave feminists clamored so hard to distance themselves from in their fight for equality.
And nearly five decades later, they still haven’t learned a damn thing as to why Michelle Obama is revolutionary.
Non-intersectional white feminists can’t stand to see women of color take charge of their lives. These feminists have spent decades trying to mold women of color into their brand of feminism, only to shun and shame us when we do not fall in line. Our brand of feminism is mocked and ridiculed as mere identity politics when we begin to advocate for ourselves — after learning the feminist movement has no interest in dismantling a system that sets them up as secondary benefactors of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
And Cottle’s piece is no different. Michelle Obama’s declaration that her primary role will be mom-in-chief for Sasha and Malia Obama is only part of the problem white feminists have. Michelle Obama’s refusal to serve as their token woman of color who picks up the mantle of traditional feminist activism is why white feminists remain disgruntled towards the First Lady. Her willingness to say no to white women and their brand of feminism is a small act of defiance that white women just can’t accept.
She refuses to serve as Mammy and tend to white feminists’ needs. She refuses to put white women and feminism first by declaring her children — her family — are more important than Miss Ann’s needs and her family’s well-being. Michelle Obama’s decision to put her family’s needs first is an act of feminism, but one that non-intersectional feminists don’t recognize.
Racism, slavery, white supremacy, economic inequality and deprivation forced black women to cater to the needs and demands of Miss Ann and her family. For centuries, we black women ran ourselves weary and exhausted making sure white men, white women and white children are fed, bathed, clothes and content before we could even have a moment to feed, clothe, bathe and care for ourselves and our own families. Miss Ann and her family’s needs, desires and demands ruled our lives at the expense and detriment of our own health, wellbeing and agency. Black women had to put up with the physical, mental and sexual abuse of white men, women and children because we had no choice.
But, these white women don’t and won’t understand that. They don’t understand because our lives and our struggles have only served as background noise to the movement at large. Women of color have only served as superficial props, only brought out and paraded as mere mannequins to pay lip service to those who critique the feminist movement as too monochrome and homogenous. White women nod and smile as we tell our stories, only to dismiss and disregard our struggles as a byproduct of plain ol’ sexism; something that will magically be cured once women are on equal footing as men.
Intersectional activism — addressing how kyriarchy oppresses individuals in varied ways — is treated as a distraction by most white feminists because it would force them to address that they, in fact, are not the abused poor souls who are helpless against the tyranny of men. It would force them to realize that they — mostly white, cis, hetero, abled-bodied women — are complicit in kyriarchy.
The use and abuse of black women by white feminists is why many of us shun the label of feminism. The appropriation of our struggles — and refusal to engage in any nuanced discussions about kyriarchy— is why black women don’t go running towards feminism. The silencing of our voices and the turning of the other cheek when black girls are attacked and mocked by others is why black women don’t readily align themselves with white women. White women have proven time and again that they don’t care about black women and women of color, so why should myself or women like Michelle Obama go running towards a narrowly-focused movement that’s historically done nothing but use and abuse us?
These same women have remained silent as white men engage in racialized sexist attacks on Michelle Obama, but want to criticize her for refusing to embrace a movement that ignores the devaluation of her womanhood? Why advocate for a movement that won’t even validate, protect and defend your womanhood?
As I have said, Michelle Obama and women of color don’t owe feminists and feminism shit. We don’t owe you and you are not entitled to our lip service. Michelle Obama is right to lean out of a movement that has not had her back since she stepped onto the national scene.
Non-intersectional white feminists have not been and will never be here for women of color, so we will not lean in and champion a movement that remains all too interested in staying on that cozy pedestal imposed by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.