I recently read this piece in The New York Times about what the roles and public reputations of Michelle Obama and Ann Romney reveal about the state of American feminism.
The author, Jamie Stiehm, who is clearly a Hillary Clinton admirer, talks about how much both Clinton’s individual political career and tenure as First Lady seemed to advance the cause of feminism, especially as compared to Michelle Obama’s tenure and Ann Romney life and campaign identity so far. She notes that Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama, who is 15 years Ann Romney’s junior, grew up during different eras in the feminist movement–and how their life choices seem to reflect that.
Although Stiehm initially seems to suggest that Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama’s age difference may account for their different life choices and representations of the goals of feminism, she doesn’t venture to explain how or why Clinton, who was born two years before Ann Romney and seemingly during the same “era of feminism,” chose the same professional life path (and apparent adherence to the feminist movement) as Michelle Obama, but maybe I just missed that…
According to the article, Ann Romney “has never pursued a profession outside of the home,” while Michelle Obama, of course, is an attorney. Yet, Stiehm notes, despite these differences in their backgrounds, both women primarily play the role of supporters to their politician husbands and not professional women pursuing their own endeavors or actively championing the cause of American feminism.
Stiehm argues that while Ann Romney “owes no debt to feminism” because she chose the “traditional” exclusive path of motherhood and family, Michelle Obama, with her education and professional achievement, has directly benefited from the feminist movement. For this reason, the author seems to be surprised by the similar ways in which both women seem to have followed the typical model of First Lady as family focused and political arm candy, especially considering Michelle Obama’s professional background, as opposed to “breaking ground” and having a policy agenda like Hillary Clinton, for example.
I don’t intend for this to be a post steeped in theoretical feminism or anything like that. At the moment, I’m neither interested enough nor qualified enough to do that, but several questions and issues ran through my mind while reading the article that I feel compelled to discuss.
My first issue is the notion that Ann Romney “owes no debt to feminism” because she chose to be a wife and mother as opposed to being employed outside of her home. The very fact that she had a choice between careers in the public and domestic spheres suggests to me that she does owe some sort of debt to feminism, to people who argued that women were capable of doing more than housework. Ann Romney is also educated–another form of “indebtedness” to women who argued for possibilities and opportunities for women.
I think it’s important that those who subscribe to the label of feminist or argue for feminist causes are careful not to classify as or suggest that women who choose the “traditional” stay-at-home route are anti-feminist or not supporting or advancing the progression of women’s rights. Motherhood is a very important part of being a woman. It just does not encompass all that women are made for and capable of.
We don’t know why Ann Romney chose not to have a job outside of her home. Maybe it was because raising five children was enough of a job for her or maybe it was because it wasn’t financially necessary, (I may be wrong, but I think many of the early champions of feminism were from pretty well-off backgrounds themselves, so what they were really fighting for was the right to work, not the necessity of having the means to provide for themselves or their families, much like Ann Romney) but that doesn’t mean Ann Romney necessarily set the movement back or isn’t interested or able to advocate for the rights of women.
On the other hand, in the case of Michelle Obama, part of me agrees with the article’s sentiments that she seems to have put her own professional background aside in order to present the First Lady image of supportive wife and mother. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love my First Lady. Everyone knows that she’s educated and accomplished. I think she’s classy, admirable, down-to-earth, and intelligent, and I want to be like her when I grow up, but I do feel like sometimes she waters herself down in order to do the First Lady thing and promote her select initiatives and shout “Obama 2012.” However, unlike the author of the Times article, I don’t think that that is her intention or her fault.
A crucial point that I think the article misses is that the office of First Lady in itself is, in many ways, anti-feminist and contrary to a progressive agenda for women’s rights. Think about it. How much time do we spend talking about the First Lady’s outfits and likeability? The post is designed to be one of a figurehead and perpetrator of patriarchal notions of political leadership. The author of the Times piece seems to want the First Lady and the candidate for First Lady to develop policy agendas of sorts, but history has shown us that people do not like for the First Lady to get directly involved in political affairs.
Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for spearheading the universal healthcare initiative when she was First Lady. I remember reading her autobiography Living History and being surprised by her accounts (because I’m too young to remember it) of the criticism of her hair and outfits, especially when she first got to the White House. Again, issues like those seem to suggest to me that the position of First Lady is anti-feminist in itself because it reverts many women back to being objects of beauty who simply “stand by their man.”
I’m sure the initiatives that every First Lady develops were begun in part to combat those stereotypes, but, despite many of them being worthy social causes, they still have always seemed like nationally hyped “pet projects” to keep the First Lady busy and perpetuate the notion of the modern, liberated woman. I’m sure Michelle Obama did not go to Princeton and Harvard so that The New York Times could write that “her degrees are hidden in the White House cupboards,” but deference seems to come with the territory of being First Lady. The one time Michelle Obama seemed to express an honest sentiment (the being “proud of her country for the first time” remark), she got raked over the coals. Thus, the motto for First Ladies seems to be to stick as close as possible to the script or risk messing things up for your husband.
If we really want to analyze what being First Lady has done for feminism, we need to examine the existence and function of the post as a whole. Why can’t a woman just be the President’s wife? Could she have just moved to D. C. and continued practicing law? Why does the position of First Lady seem to come with an unstated contract of giving up your personal pursuits, voice, and identity in order to support your husband’s? How might this level of sacrifice change if we were to elect a woman president? Would the First Man be judged by his words and wardrobe just as fiercely or could he go on living his life?
These are just some of the issues that truly need to be addressed before we start talking about what first ladies are doing or not doing to advance the cause of feminism.