The XX Factor

Michelle Obama Has Done Nothing to Hurt Feminism

Being the first lady is a lot of work, but that doesn’t make it a career

Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Michelle Obama is often a target of the right, but during Barack Obama’s first term as president, she occasionally got attacked from the left, as well as from people who wanted to start a feminist debate over what she ought to be doing with her time and whether she should be more aggressively political. Now we get to do it all over again in the second term, with Michelle Cottle at Politico asking whether Obama is failing at her job with all that vegetable gardening instead of speaking out about, say, abortion.

As with all sequels, the explosions are bigger the second time around. While my colleague Emily Bazelon may have wistfully wished for a little more from Obama in 2012, Politico calls her a “feminist nightmare.” How does Cottle, under the headline of “Leaning Out,” back this up? She finds a couple of feminists to complain: Linda Hirshman and Keli Goff are indeed upset about Obama’s unwillingness to model more career-driven behavior during her husband’s tenure. Cottle also cites a community blogger—not an official contributor—at the feminist site Feministing, suggesting that she was hard-pressed to find feminists who are actually troubled by Obama’s choices. 

She then scolds feminists for being such meanies:

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.

Problem is there’s not a lot of reason to think that feminists are either angry or “pining” for Obama to be different than she is:

Most feminists don’t really feel it’s appropriate to micromanage how Obama does her job as first lady for a very simple reason: The job of first lady is to be the president’s wife, and feminists object to “wife” being a job title at all. Obama has had plenty of actual salary-earning jobs in the past, but right now she’s someone who has quit her job in order to support her husband’s career. Like many women in her situation, she fills her time with community activities and volunteer work. Obama is under no illusions about what she’s doing, which is why she calls herself “mom-in-chief.”

None of this is meant to be critical of Obama, for what it’s worth. She and her husband found themselves in a position that lots of other less famous and less powerful people know well, the “two body” problem, in which both spouses have prestigious professional careers, but your job opportunities are in different places. For most of their marriage, the Obamas dealt with this problem by living separately much of the time, which is reason enough to trust that Obama is willing to make relationship compromises to further her ambitions (not that she has to prove that to me or any other feminist). But her husband became president. That’s the sort of thing that will overwhelm even the most stalwart of career-minded feminists, and I think it’s more than understandable, under the circumstances, that she is taking a break from her professional life. 

It’s good for feminism that Obama refuses to try to prop up some illusion that the first lady is a real career instead of an extension of your husband’s. After he leaves office, I wouldn’t be surprised if she, like Hillary Clinton before her, returns to the world of paid work, building on the connections and reputation she built up during her husband’s two terms. Right now, she’s not holding a job, and to her credit she refuses to lie to the rest of us and pretend that she is.