Tuesday, May 22, 2007

All the King's Women

Over at Salon, Debra Dickerson has this op-ed about Michelle Obama. Excerpts:

Damn it all, Michelle Obama has quit her $215,000 dream job and demoted herself to queen. Though the party line is that she's only "scaled back" to a 20 percent workload, I doubt her former co-workers will bother alerting her to many staff meetings. She's traded in her solid gold résumé, high-octane talent and role as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to be a professional wife and hostess.

Now, the energy and drive that had her up jogging before dawn and a gratifying day of work and family will mainly be spent smiling for the cameras...

My heart breaks for her just thinking about it. Being president will be hard. So will being first lady for the brilliant Michelle -- imagine, having to begin all your sentences with "My husband and I..."

I'm in a feminist fury about Michelle (I'll use her first name to avoid confusion with her husband) feeling forced to quit, but make no mistake: I'm not blaming her. Few could stand up to the pressure she's facing, especially from blacks, to sacrifice herself on the altar of her husband's ambition. He could be the first black president, you know! Also, she must be beside herself trying to hold things together for her daughters. I'm blaming the world and every man, woman, child and border colliein it who helps send the message that women's lives must be subordinate to
everyone else's. .....

I am not saying Michelle Obama is just another member of the so-called opt-out revolution; clearly, her reasons for leaving her job are historic -- and even so, she clearly seems pained to do it. And I hate to add to Michelle's load, but even though she's made the choice to leave work, I hope she'll keep her role in women's history in mind and increase the tiny inroad political wives have made into something approaching women's freedom of choice.

What can Michelle do? If Obama wins, she should go for it and take on a meaningful public policy role, à la Hillary Clinton's healthcare work. Just a lot more carefully. Why on earth should such an accomplished woman just arrange white-tie dinners? Until then, she should become more outspoken, building on her husband's willingness to confront dysfunction in the black community -- a black mother can get away with what no one else could....

Of course, "black" problems are really American problems; having the golden couple spearheading the fight will make it sexy to help blacks with their systemic problems (education and entrepreneurship, to name two). The two Obamas can de-race these issues (here is where she can use her fancy education) and help America understand that black progress is American progress.

Most important, though, I hope Michelle will bring feminism to black women. Feminism is rightfully criticized for being irrelevant to black women and ignoring their issues...

Now is the perfect opportunity for the movement to reach out to black women by embracing Michelle and black women's causes in general. Progressive women should be working their way toward the middle ground a political wife must occupy and politely engineer ways in which Michelle can put her postelection time, win or lose, to worthy causes important to the black community -- welfare-to-work, hiring and job training, for example.

I find this op-ed interesting and compelling on so many levels. While far less enamored of identity politics than I used to be in college and law school, I do sympathize with Dickerson's exhortations. Even as I myself don't feel bound to comment on every issue pertaining to feminism or Asian Americans, I do feel a sort of responsibility--but the extent of that responsibility, particularly the extent to which it impacts my personal decisions, is yet to be seen. Still, I think it's tough that the weight of so many expectations--pulling in so many different directions--should be on Michelle Obama's shoulders.

Your thoughts?