The XX Factor

The Obamas Don’t Have a Post-Feminist Marriage

Just one small response to Hanna’s excellent observations in today’s DoubleX discussion of an alternate universe in which Hillary had become President : I can’t resist disagreeing with her that the Obama marriage is post-feminist. I don’t think any marriage where one spouse is gone out of the house to the extent that he was, and one spouse is left to raise the small children and hold down the fort, and, oh yes, make the money necessary for the mortgage payment, can be described as post-feminist. At least not in the ideal sense. It may be a post-feminist marriage in the sense that it’s what a lot of women in her generation have struggled with-albeit an extreme version-but it’s not post-feminist in the sense that it’s the kind of set-up one would aspire to. Michelle Obama talked about that all the time on the campaign trail-how she was always the one who had to stay at home and wait for the plumber when the toilet overflowed. She would joke about it, but there was a knowing bite to her words. There were several interviews in which she would say something like, “Barack has been home with free time for 10 days out out of the past year.” I think their marriage is less post-feminist than a lot of marriages I’ve witnessed in which the man really is able (or compelled) to help more at home and cover child care and home chores during his wife’s business trips, which is something that Barack Obama to my knowledge never had to do. What if Michelle Obama had, herself, had a professional calling as strong as her husband’s-would he have dialed back his career to enable hers? Foregone some fundraisers?

There are actually some interesting parallels-like Hillary Clinton, she for a number of years was obliged to work in part to bankroll her husband’s political career.

And just because she, like Hillary, will get to have her own high-profile career after he has had his, doesn’t make it, to my mind, post-feminist.

Judging from the New York Times Magazine piece and other sources, they have a strong, affectionate, joking, highly functional marriage that has survived very well the tensions inherent in marriages of high achievers in this generation. Barack Obama is described by his friends as being very open in his praise of her, and he is obviously good about bringing flowers and making restaurant reservations, but part of that, it always seemed to me, is to make up for what he has asked of her. He has asked a lot of her, as many male politicians do ask of their spouses, and to his credit, he knows it. But I still wouldn’t describe an arrangement like theirs as post-feminist. I wonder if any political marriage can be, because the demands are just so great and the need to be away from home is relentless. But maybe I have a different definition of post-feminist? Maybe Hanna is thinking kind of a post-feminist reality, and I am thinking post-feminist ideal?

You could even argue, at least by the terms that I seem to have set, that among high-profile political couples it is the Palins who have one of the more post-feminist marriages, at least if you measure this by shared duties, dual careers, and the image of the husband jiggling the baby while the wife is at the podium.