The Mute World (Politics & Society)

They’re Not Every Woman: Feminism and the Position of First Lady

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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.

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4 thoughts on “They’re Not Every Woman: Feminism and the Position of First Lady

  1. Excellent points here. I’ve been a bit disappointed myself to see Michelle Obama, a highly educated attorney and activist when her husband was elected, assume the traditional subservient First Lady role — pick a nice ladylike, non-controversial cause like urban gardens and support it. Don’t get political and for heavens sake don’t rock your husband’s political boat.

    On the other hand, when Hillary Clinton was First Lady, I remember thinking she and Bill had a lot of nerve thinking she should be so involved in healthcare. He, not she, was the elected official, the one voted into power.

    I guess I’m old enough to have not completely bought into feminism. I didn’t care for Hillary and I didn’t like her/their healthcare plan. Yet I’m annoyed that someone with Michelle Obama’s credentials spends her days talking to kids.

    One big reason I opposed Hillary for president was that I couldn’t imagine Bill in a subservient First Man (Gentleman?) role; I didn’t feel like voting him back into the White House as co-president. And despite her accomplishments these days, I can’t help wishing she’d do something with her hair!

    So there it is. I’m somewhere on the fence between traditionalist and feminist. One foot in the early 1900s, the other in the 21st Century. Awkward.

  2. Honestly, I think most people would probably fall into that category. I’m 22, and I wouldn’t necessarily label myself a feminist (maybe because of the stereotypes and connotations that have come to be associated with the label) but I definitely think I have feminist concerns and I’m interested in the continued progression of women’s rights.

    Your conflicted feelings over what Michelle should/could be doing as compared to what Hillary did just bolsters my belief that the position of First Lady in itself is inherently anti-feminist and antiquated. We don’t want them to be too prim and proper, yet we don’t want them to be too involved either.

    I think the real question is why can’t they just continue their professional and personal lives and be women whose husbands are the President? That’s what we expect the kids to do, so why not the wives? He goes to work and she does too. This smile, cheer, wave, and plant vegetables thing just supports the imaginary (and patriarchal) notion of the President running the nation like he “runs” his family.

    First Ladies make some of the biggest personal and professional sacrifices because even when their husbands are out of office, they can’t simply go back to work. If/when we do elect a woman President, I highly doubt we will expect her husband to behave in the same way that we expect our First Ladies to. We would think something’s wrong with him.

  3. I have no problem calling myself a feminist because without them, where would I be? Feminism has given women the right to vote, contraception, Title IX, race and domestic violence advocacy…to say you don’t call yourself a feminist because of the negative stereotype is like saying you won’t call yourself black because it might scare someone…it’s just silly.

    I completely understand the Hillary/Michelle question because there isn’t a happy medium. We thought Hillary was doing too much and yet we’re upset Michelle is using her Harvard law degree to chat about vegetables. In France there’s really no official “First Lady,” so they can continue living their lives.

    As for Ann Romney, I kind of agree with the writer of the Times in that she really didn’t use feminism because she was never going to choose anything than what was traditional in the first place. From what I’ve seen of her, I doubt she wanted anything that what she has now. And really, the Romneys are billionaires, I doubt it was any type of struggle for her to raise her five sons.

  4. I can see your point about it not making sense to be reluctant to use the label “feminist” just because of the stereotypes associated with it. Maybe part of it is that I also think I need to know more about the actual philosophy and goals of feminist theory as opposed to just saying I support the progression of women’s rights before I subscribe to the label. Otherwise, it would be like me calling myself Christian without knowing the tenets of Christianity.

    It’s interesting that France has no official First Lady. I didn’t know that. I really think that the U.S. should do the same thing.

    As for Ann Romney, I’m still reluctant to say that just because she chose the “traditional” path that she cannot be a feminist or help feminism to progress. Shouldn’t it be about women having the choice to lead the lives we want, whether it be at home or in the workplace or both or neither? Otherwise, I think we’re recreating another type of gender-based oppression that says only women who fit certain characteristics can represent the progressive goals.

    Thanks for your insight! I appreciate you reading and commenting.

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