Will Michelle Obama Spark the Next ‘Mommy Wars’ Skirmish?

Fri, November 14, 2008

Moms & Politics

Loads of media types are already wondering aloud, what kind of parents the Obamas will be. For me, that question is sort of silly — won’t they continue to be the same kind of parents they’ve always been?

My question, hopefully not as silly, is whether Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House as a highly-educated, accomplished professional woman who is now, in essence, a stay-at-home mom, will re-ignite the whole Mommy Wars/Get to Work/Feminine Mistake debate?

There’s no doubt that she’ll help bring more attention to the issues of work/life balance so many of us struggle with every day:

She is a get-it-done-efficiently Rachael Ray type, they say, not given to elaborate Martha Stewart-like efforts.

As first lady, Mrs. Obama has said, she plans to make herself an advocate for working parents, particularly military families, urging better access to child care for all. Trying to juggle public duties with two young children, she will be a living illustration of the very issue she describes.

“She’s going to be engaging in the balancing act herself,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian.

Which leads some to ask, is this the “momification” of Michelle?

When I lamented to a friend about how it seemed that both the media and Michelle have been downplaying her accomplishments — wouldn’t it be great for our daughters AND sons to hear more about that? — my friend wondered whether our country, for all its advances, was ready to accept her as a professional woman or whether we still need to see our first lady, especially the first African American First Lady, as less threatening. After all, it didn’t go so well for Hillary Clinton when she made it clear she wasn’t exactly going to hide her professional self.

So, Rebecca Traister at Salon wonders, how does it feel to put your ambition on the back burner? How many of us have gone through that same calculation:

In all the worrying about how Sasha and Malia will adjust to having their lives turned upside down, in all the fretting about how [Barack] Obama will move his Chicago-style shop to Washington, why is there so little curiosity about how Michelle will adjust to the loss of her own private, very successful, very high-profile and very independent identity? How will Michelle Obama feel as she becomes what she has long resisted — an extension of her husband?

Traister also points to the recent More magazine profile of Michelle, that ponders the same question:

In one of the smartest pieces that has been written about the next first lady, Geraldine Brooks’ profile of [Michelle Obama] in the October issue of More magazine, Brooks writes that while you can see Michelle’s life as the quintessential modern woman’s success story, the trajectory can also be read as a “depressingly retrograde narrative of stifling gender roles and frustrating trade-offs.” In serious ways, Brooks writes, “it is her husband’s career, his choices — choices she has not always applauded — that have shaped her life in the last decade.”

For some reason, it’s almost media sport to publicly question how high profile women define their roles as mothers. As Meredith O’Brien wrote earlier in the campaign, that’s not good for any of us:

I’ve got a solution. How ’bout you make your own, personal and career decisions. I’ll make mine. [Sarah] Palin and [Michelle] Obama will make theirs. And we’ll just agree that we don’t all see eye-to-eye on work and parenthood, that we all stand alone in our own shoes. If the mothers who are so quick to attack one another’s choices instead channeled their energies into something other than insulting one another, think of all the time that’d be left to do something more constructive.

Ah, if only it was that simple. I think one reason this whole tableau gets so much play is because it’s a quick and easy one to write about that editors know people will be drawn to. It’s not really about the debate, but about the ratings and the ad revenue.

There was bound to be some discussion of all this as the educated, accomplished mother of two young children enters the White House. But I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that it isn’t fodder for four years of renewed border skirmishes in the Mommy Wars.

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16 Responses to “Will Michelle Obama Spark the Next ‘Mommy Wars’ Skirmish?”

  1. Jonathan Trenn Says:

    I fully agree with Meredith O’Brien’s quote, but unfortunately you’re correct in your observation that Michelle Obama’s style of motherhood will be closely examined. And not just from advocates from either side of this argument. The concept itself will sell.

    Regarding Hillary…I think that was a different story. She created a lot of her own problems with her baking cookies comment. Her overall style was a little “in your face”, which can turn people off regardless of their political persuasion of views on social standards.

  2. John Lynn Says:

    Let’s hope it doesn’t start a war. If it does, it seems like that would be contrary to the whole Obama “No Needless War” platform.

  3. Defiantmuse Says:

    I’ve never really understood the point of the Mommy Wars. I think mothers do what they feel is best for them and their families and who should judge that? Maybe if I had ever had some sort of motivation to join the professional world it would have been more of an issue but I’m quite content to stay home with my kid(s) and pursue art in whatever context I can.

    I have already heard so many women questioning Michelle Obama’s situation as she enters the White House and it’s been with judgment and criticism. It gets under my skin every single time.

    I agree with Jonathan about Hillary. She just has a bit more of an abrasive personality, whether that’s good or bad it is what it is and Michelle Obama seems to be a bit better at presenting herself in a like-able way. (for the record, I do like Hillary but I can see what turns some people off)

  4. Feeder of the Hungry Beans Says:

    The “momification” fretting worries me. I don’t like the either-or thinking behind it. Yes, Michelle is a mother. There’s nothing wrong with that. She has held high-powered professional positions and, I would argue, continues to as the First Lady-elect.

    After Rebecca Traister’s piece, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick was on NPR yesterday lamenting that we don’t see Michelle in suits. That’s a really outdated definition of “power” and “professionalism.” She also worried over the fact that it will be Michelle, not Barack, moving the household and getting the kids set up at school in D.C. No kidding! He’s the president of the United States! Any relationship includes that professional/family give and take.

    And, let’s not worry about Michelle or her professional career. If any woman in the world is going to find that elusive “on-ramp” (even though I would argue she hasn’t “off-ramped” at all), it’s her.

  5. Heidi O Says:

    I think it is amazing that they believe that wearing a suit makes someone professional instead of looking at their intelligence and depth of character. This mommy war has been a fear of mine as well. For anyone to think that the first lady is just a stay at home mom is lunatic. Yes, she will not be working for a company but if I understand correctly, she will have a staff working for her and whatever agenda she decides to set as first lady. In a real sense, she will have her own non-profit to run as well as a household to oversee. That seems like a large job.

  6. anniegirl1138 Says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if women stepped back and refused to be drawn into this pointless debate again.

    It’s too bad that Michelle cannot pursue a separate career while he husband serves but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a job. First Lady is a job and it’s one she can largely define to suit her interests and skills. Not a bad gig really.

  7. Holly Says:

    You know PunditMom, you really put up meaty posts. I LIKE that.

    I think Michelle Obama will make a very positive impression on the public during her husbands administration. I don’t see her fading into the background at all, but at the same time I see her being a very gracious First Lady…somewhat unlike Hillary. I am sure they talked about what she would do, what her roles would be and the type of things that she would work toward long before the election was over. I think she also will emphasize her role as both a mother and an advocate on many levels. She’s far far far too accomplished to want to see that take much of a backseat and I’d bet she is also aware of the opportunities to use her skills.

    I think it won’t be an either or proposition.

  8. Cynthia Says:

    As a mom who exited the labor force to stay home with children but has stayed in touch with many of her mom (and non-mom) friends who are still part of the labor force I have to say that I don’t see it being an issue at all. It will look like the media trying to create drama.

    I am currently taking a course with undergraduate women (10 years younger than I am) and they don’t perceive any Mommy Wars the way I think women two decades older than I am feel it. It may be a generational thing. The sooner some younger women start writing Op-Eds, the sooner we will see some insight into job sharing, flexible scheduling, telecommuting, etc. being drilled home to the American public instead of discussing for the umpteenth time the pros or cons of working or staying home. Women today know it is never just one or the other, their lives will be in some shade of grey.

  9. bitchcraftbrooklyn Says:

    On the suit issue- it isn’t THAT MichelleO doesn’t wear suits, it is WHY she doesn’t wear suits (when she presumably wore them her entire professional career).

    If you’ve ever been a professional woman in a suit, particularly a black professional woman in a suit, you know a very likely reason why she doesn’t appear in one.

    A woman demonized by the right-wing media as a black power-monger, reminiscent of Hillary’s treatment in the early 90s, with an ivy league education, appearing in a suit? Let’s hope there is a day our first person dresses business casual merely for comfort.

    With everything MichelleO has going for her, though, I have no doubt she can pull it off better than anyone, no matter what she wears.

  10. Dana Says:

    I really hope that Michelle Obama can be a role model for all women, both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers and women who do not have children. I’m so tired of all the bickering between us (collectively speaking of course).

    I also hope she can put her two cents in there about better support for women and mothers in the workforce, and better parental leave benefits for the birth or adoption of a child.

    I’ve got a list of things…I might have to blog it all myself.

    No more “mommy wars” I can’t handle it. :)

  11. Donna Says:

    Well said. And I think, as several of your commenters also noted, that she’s still going to be a working mom. Hello? First Lady has to be a pretty demanding job. It might not be the job she went to school for, but how many of us have that?

    As for the mommy wars… sigh… please not again. The only Mommy War I’m involved in is the one with myself – you know, when you start berating your own choices and thinking you could be doing it better. I’m trying for a truce, but it’s a day-to-day process. As for the rest of the moms out there, let ‘em do what works for them. I can’t see how it concerns my family.

  12. Corina Says:

    I never understood the “Mommy Wars” either. I think it is more media hype than anything else. I think, above all, it will highlight the balance that most women in this country try to maintain. It is my hope that she does not simply set aside all of her accomplishments, but use them and mold them in developing her role in the White House.

  13. Karyn Beach Says:

    Wasn’t the point of feminism to give women more choices and more options? If the end result of the movement is to force all women to be pantsuit-wearing workaholics then it is no better than the out-dated thinking that all women belong barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen. It’s exchanging one rigid stereotype for another.

    As for Michelle, just because she won’t be working in the public sector doesn’t mean that she won’t be working. First Lady is a full-time job. It might not be the job she did before but it is a job )a pretty big one) and I think she’ll be great at it.

    The same qualities that made her a successful professional will make her a successful first lady – whether she’s in pantsuits, dresses or jeans.

  14. Kelley Irish Says:

    Here’s hoping she can very the very nature of her sacrafice-can help each of us as women see the challenges that face both working and stay -at-home Mom’s.

    As a teacher I am blessed with 2 month’s off in the summer when all I have to do is take a couple of classes-which for me is fun. I love being able to stay home and get things caught up around the house, and realize that once time is freed up from a paying job a hundred non-paying jobs take over.

    Then the school year resumes and I am back on the tredmill of balancing work, family, home and career. Stretching the hours in a day by staying up later, and living with a guilty feeling that while I am doing everything pretty well-if I had choosen one or the other I might have done it better.

    I think as women we need to learn to support each other and declare a truce. Each role has it’s rewards and challenges.

  15. Meredith O'Brien Says:

    Once the excitement about having young children in the White House for the first time in decades quiets down, I hope that folks will look at Michelle Obama as a symbol of a modern woman who makes difficult choices about her life but isn’t about to make any excuses or justifications for her choices.

    Obama, who once told a journalist that she took a newborn in a car seat along with her on a job interview, seems to radiate confidence. I hope that her self-assuredness will be contagious and, as she mothers her daughters and champions causes dear to her heart, the “mommy wars” lens will seem passe.

  16. judy in ky Says:

    I think the “mommy wars” are ridiculous! Every woman should do whatever is best for herself and her family, and we should all keep our noses out of other peoples’ business! Good grief!


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