Barack’s Angels

Lilly Ledbetter, Jill Biden, and Michelle Obama on the trail in Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—They’re an unlikely trio: the earnest, affectless professional in the bland dark pantsuit; the stunning blonde in the lipstick-red shift dress; and the elegant, cerebral brunette in the slim pants and cardigan. But in the manner of Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith, there’s something about Lilly Ledbetter, Jill Biden, and Michelle Obama at a University of Virginia rally on Wednesday that clicks. They aren’t crime-fighting women, they’re fighting a crime against women: the Republican vice presidential nominee. And they must take her down without speaking her name. 

The crowd here comes primed for some flying sideways karate kicks. Kristin Solomon, 29, a Charlottesville architect, is here because “I’m just tired of being angry all the time. I’m tired of all the focus being on a woman I don’t admire. I needed to be surrounded by a community of smart, intelligent women I can look up to.” For her, there’s Lilly Ledbetter, the Clarence Earl Gideon of equal pay.

Ledbetter tells slowly, and in a heavy Alabama accent, her story about what happens “when the American commitment to equality is betrayed.” She tells about decades of work at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama and how she discovered, by way of an anonymous note, that she was being paid far less than her male colleagues for the same work. She sued, and a federal jury in Alabama agreed she’d been wronged. (At this point the crowd roars. The woman behind me sighs, “They don’t know how this is going to end, do they?”) Ledbetter describes how the Supreme Court reversed her jury award, punishing her for the fact that her company discriminated in secret.

Then she explains that when Congress tried to pass legislation reflecting the ways discrimination happens in the real world, “Senator Obama was one of the strongest supporters of that bill.” Sen. McCain, on the other hand, “didn’t even show up to vote on it, but he said he would have voted against it.”

Hilary Rice is a graduate student at the school of education. She says she hopes the Obama campaign will deliver the kind of change that will ensure a better life for the kids she will teach and equal pay for her. The campaign sends her Jill Biden—introduced as Dr. Biden—whose brief message is that American women, and consequently their families, are in trouble. Biden introduces herself as a teacher. She tells the crowd that American women earn 77 cents for every $1 earned by men; African-Americans earn 62 cents to the dollar and Latinas 53. She reminds the crowd that equal pay is “not just a women’s issue, it’s a family issue.”

Paul Hesse, a UVa senior from Richmond, is here looking to make some noise. He’s a senior majoring in foreign affairs. When I catch up with him, he’s stirring up a group of students in the nosebleed section, because they haven’t been handed any “Change We Need” signs to wave around. “Signs! Up here! We want signs!” he’s hollering, as he explains to his friends that this is the way to do these things: You make some noise and get your way. To inspire him, there’s Michelle Obama.  

The first thing you notice—especially in the sleeveless top after she shucks the cardigan—are the guns. Not the sort used for shooting God’s creatures out of helicopters. Just these incredibly ripped, muscular arms that suggest Michelle Obama could toss a guy through a plate-glass window if she wanted to. Which she doesn’t because that was never Jaclyn Smith’s job. Those stunts always went to Farrah.

After she’s introduced, Obama hitches up her pants, strides to the stage and grins at the crowd. “Fired up?” she hollers. “Ready to go?” She lavishes praise upon her co-angels, then tells the audience: “What we decide Nov. 4 is going to change the world.” She urges the crowd to register voters and talk to their friends and their parents and their grandparents. She says, “What I want to hand over to my little girls is vastly different from the world we have.” And then exhorts them again to “change the world.”

Michelle Obama is not a hater. There are no hateful signs at this rally to demonize or berate. No bumper stickers here belittle other women. It’s very, very ladylike and really extremely nice. The women gathered here are not happy about Sarah Palin, and one or two admit they’d have enjoyed watching Michelle dole out a teensy little karate chop to the beehive. But it doesn’t happen. The Obama campaign has had two weeks to absorb the lessons of Sarah Palin, and it appears to have concluded that there is nothing to be absorbed, nothing that warrants mention. They are evidently certain that after that first peachy Harlequin Romance glow wears off the Alaska governor, women will rally around women’s issues, not female candidates.

Maybe. The message today is spot-on for women: McCain and Palin are bad for workers, bad for families, bad for the economy, bad for health care, and bad for women. It’s delivered with glamour and poise and a lot of gorgeous, shiny hair. Maybe it’s just me, but after all that Republican nattering on about shattering the glass ceiling, I was hoping for just a little broken glass here myself tonight. Nothing much. One smallish plate-glass window would do. The magic of Charlie’s Angels lay in the fact that while they were angels on the outside, they were some crazy kung fu mammas on the inside. Maybe we needed to see just a little less angel tonight. And just a little more kung fu.