When did women get to the point where they have to declare themselves moms above all else in order to be perceived as acceptable to the public? We heard it again and again and again at the presidential nominating conventions.
And if not mothers, then caretakers of some sort — supportive friend, helpful wife. Even high-powered women seem to find ways to play apologist when it comes to their professional accomplishments.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg wants everyone to know she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to be a good mom (and then works late into the night).
New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced with her professional new job title that she would also shortly be adding “mom” to her repertoire.
Michelle Obama — a double Ivy and accomplished woman in her own right — constantly reminds us that she’s just a “mom-in-chief.”
The First Lady took a lot of heat for not telling America about her own professional achievements during her DNC remarks. I disagree with those critics; that wasn’t the time or place. All presidential nomination convention speeches are supposed to lead in one direction — to praise and support the nominee (though I think someone forgot to tell many of the Republican convention speakers as they spoke more about their own agendas).
What left me scratching my head was why FLOTUS felt the need to refer to herself — yet again — as the “mom-in-chief.” It wasn’t necessary to characterize her role at all. Praise Barack Obama for being a great dad and husband? Definitely. Tell a heartwarming story about the importance of having dinner together as a family? You bet. But I was disappointed that she felt the need, as she frequently does, to describe herself to the country as the “mom-in-chief” — i.e., the one who keeps the home fires burning, the one who makes sure the kids get their homework done and the one whose foremost goal is to keep the family unit running.
Reciting again that shorthand phrase that says her personal is now also her professional played like a gratuitous way to preempt Republicans from claiming that their women were proud to be mothers (as almost all of the RNC women reminded us), not like those liberal Democrats who focused on politics and the issues.
But one woman made me realize that my disappointment might come from projecting my experiences and perceptions on all other women — women whose realities and histories are vastly different than mine. Tami Winfrey Harris, a writer at Clutch Magazine online, thinks there’s something good to be said for a woman of color role model who embodies the traditional mom role that many of us who are Caucasian sometimes rail against.
In her article entitled, A Black Mom-in-Chief is Revolutionary: What White Feminists Get Wrong About Michelle Obama, she writes:
“In contrast to some of the mainstream feminist analysis of Michelle Obama and her role in the White House, I have heard from many black women, including feminist ones, who are delighted to see an African American woman publicly celebrated in ways that we commonly are not. Michelle Obama is–refreshingly for many of us–lauded for being nurturing, beautiful and stylish as well as whip smart, athletic and strong. And we imagine that Obama has the strength to make her needs known and that if she has, for now, chosen motherhood, that it is the role she wants. She is a black woman free to make that choice. These things are revolutionary for black women, even if some white women see business as usual.”
Harris has turned my thinking on its head a bit on this. While we white ladies have struggled to escape that image of cookie baking June Cleaver in an apron, black women have been fighting other stereotypes –the welfare mom or Michelle Obama as a fist-bumping terrorist. So when a black woman publicly is portrayed in a way that is non-traditional to them, there’s a cultural opportunity in that.
So where does that leave me as a white mom of a daughter of color? How is my vision of what a role model is vs. what a stereotype looks like, shaped not only by my own personal experiences, but also by the collective history of women like me, impact my daughter? How do I, as a white, middle-class girl who grew up on a small family farm with big ideas about what she could accomplish because of what (mostly white) feminists did to pave the way, incorporate what the world looks like to an Asian-American girl in a transracial/multicultural family?
I want our daughter to see the opportunity in professions and not be relegated to the historical homemaking stereotypes that I railed against. But as she looks around the world, even today, and what people think about and expect of Asians, what stereotypes will she want to run from?
Perhaps Michelle Obama’s “mom-in-chief” role is good for our daughters to see if conveys they can be different things at various points in their lives. The Democratic convention wasn’t the right time for Michelle to talk up her resume, but she should find other opportunities to do just that, especially when she’s talking to groups of girls. The First Lady can use the spectrum of her own accomplishments to let girls of all colors know that being a mother — or being the breadwinner — are each just two aspects of many in a woman’s life.