This is from Shay, the owner/operator of Booker Rising
Defending Michelle Obama’s Choice To Be Mom-In-Chief: A Black Libertarian Feminist Perspective
No woman should be authorised to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. — Simone de Beauvoir, French feminist in response to American feminist Betty Friedan’s proposal for wages for housework.
Many feminists have long been upset with U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s self-described “Mom-In-Chief” moniker and her assertion that motherhood is her primary role. A recent debate that began on Sunday between black leftist feminist professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell and white liberal feminist journalist Bonnie Erbe illustrates this debate. Professor Harris-Lacewell argues that Mrs. Obama is changing racial images of what it means to be a mother (even though she has some concerns about Mrs. Obama’s choices and argues that her First Lady agenda is not “progressive” enough). Ms. Erbe accuses the First Lady of “caving in” to politics and stereotypes when she should be out there with an independent career while in the White House.
Let me add my black libertarian feminist perspective here, especially since I have interacted with two of the three ladies that figure into this debate. As Booker Rising readers know, Mrs. Obama is the former boss of a couple of college friends of mine so I met her a long time ago. I’ve seen her in a work setting, I’ve seen her in a relaxed setting (i.e., a get-together at one of my friends’ homes). I disagree with most of Mrs. Obama’s politics, but I like her as a person. I have collaborated with Ms. Erbe on work & family issues, in my past capacity as a communications director for a national non-profit. I also like Ms. Erbe as a person, even though we disagree on most policy positions. However, she is dead wrong on this issue. Ms. Erbe is not racist, but my first thought reading her piece was: “We are in the 21st century, right? Michelle Obama ain’t on Johnson Plantation required to go to the cotton fields, right? She does own herself, right?”
As Professor Harris-Bracewell points out in her piece, Mrs. Obama is hardly caving in to stereotypes: “African American women were full participants in agricultural labor during slavery, the backbreaking work of sharecropping and the domestic services of Jim Crow. Even middle class and elite African American women have typically worked as teachers, journalists, entrepreneurs and professionals. At every level of household income and at every point in American history, these women have been much more likely to engage in paid labor than their white counterparts. Even Claire Huxtable worked full time. So when first lady Obama makes a choice to focus on supporting her daughters through their school transition and providing companionship to her husband as he governs, she is not really conforming to norms. She is surprisingly thwarting expectations of African American women’s role in the family and representing a different image than we are used to encountering in this country.”
Ms. Erbe will have none of this racial-difference-towards-women-and-work talk. Pointing out that her white female ancestors worked as well, she writes: “I believe Mrs. Obama’s ‘Mom-in-Chief’ image was created more by Obama image-makers David Axelrod et. al. to soften her into a first lady Americans could love. I think it is a sad state of affairs that Americans are more comfortable with a non-threatening first lady than with a career woman, but it is also a stereotype that screams to be abolished. Michelle Obama is just the person who could have done it, but she decided against it. Instead, she caved into advisors’ demands. The truth is, until that stereotype becomes history, all women will suffer less power and clout in the workplace.”
Slow down, Ms. Erbe. While your white ancestors worked, that was not the norm among white women in the United States until relatively recently. However, the same can’t be said for black women. Michelle Obama’s choices is only caving in to stereotypes about motherhood…if you look at this issue from a white perspective. This black libertarian feminist sees a family-loving and married black woman who is breaking down stereotypes of the “reckless” black single mom. Given that 68% of black women are not married, Mrs. Obama is hardly the norm in Black America. Besides, it’s not like Mrs. Obama hasn’t been out there promoting her issues. She’s just not all Hillary Clinton aggro about it, and that’s fine.
While I’ve only met her a few times, Mrs. Obama as maternal caretaker is the real Mrs. Obama. A key element of libertarian feminism is non-coercion and individual autonomy. Mrs. Obama has made her own choices, sans coercion. It was difficult for Mrs. Obama to even have children, so she is probably particularly sensitive about spending time with them. Let us not forget that Mrs. Obama’s mother was a stay-at-home mother.
Ms. Erbe’s sentiments about Mrs. Obama reveals a certain strain in liberal feminism, especially white liberal feminism: that women should aspire to be like men. Another strain is that a woman’s body and labor should (de jure or de facto) belong to the state or to what liberals deem proper. As the person who possesses her body and her labor, Mrs. Obama can and should be able to contract it out as she pleases. If she wants much of her labor to go toward her daughters, that is her choice (by the way, I do believe that Mrs. Obama should get a salary for her First Lady duties, but that’s another post). If we feminists are going to claim that choice is key in women’s lives, that includes the right of Mrs. Obama to her choices. I find it ironic that Ms. Erbe castigates Mrs. Obama’s choices for not being more like…well, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
In discussing Mrs. Obama’s family life choices, both Professor Harris-Lacewell and Ms. Erbe overlook two key entities: Malia Obama and Sasha Obama. Do the Obama girls’ needs enter the picture at all to them, while they promote a desire for Mrs. Obama to save the world? Why should Mrs. Obama’s body and time be spent more toward their idea of creating new norms and smashing stereotypes, with nary a mention about the girls’ relationship with Mama?
Ms. Erbe’s sentiments in particular remind me of Ms. de Beauvoir, whose Marxist feminist writings I didn’t care for even when I was a socialist feminist. Ms. de Beauvoir always seemed to want to force women to go her way, when feminism is about freedom of choice and women creating our own choices. Individual liberty includes liberty in one’s life, and not having to deal with monopolistic thinking of how one should craft one’s life.
Perhaps Michelle made her choice because she is more comfortable with putting her children first, particularly in this transitional period in their lives. Malia and Sasha have moved to a new city, they’ve had to make new friends, they’re thrust even more into the spotlight, and their parents are world famous. That’s a lot for 10 year old and 7 year old girls to digest in just a short amount of time. Dang, the Obamas ain’t even been in the White House four months and folks are castigating Mrs. Obama for her choice to consider her daughters’ needs. Never mind that Mrs. Obama is taking personal responsibility for her life and her daughters’ lives.
Even though she is First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Obama’s family life does not belong to Simone de Beauvoir’s Marxist notion “community of women”, where childrearing is community property and motherhood is not private property, and where women are denied choice. Mrs. Obama’s family life does not belong to the state. Nor does Mrs. Obama’s life belong to feminists like Ms. Erbe who want her to do whatever they want her to do. Mrs. Obama’s family life belongs to Mrs. Obama. Do you, Mrs. Obama.
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