Monday, February 02, 2009

Desperate Housewives

"Isn't she good-looking?" her husband asked as he spun her around the dancefloor. And so it begins, the gradual erosion of Michelle Obama's identity as anything other than the wife of the most powerful man in the world, Presidential arm candy if you will. 

No matter what the politics of their marriage itself may be, in the eyes of the world her personality has been completely subsumed into that of her husband, she has gone from equal partner to merely an accessory for his glittering political career. During the Democratic primaries, Michelle Obama pared back her professional schedule by 80% in order to support her husband throughout his campaign. He may be the leader of the free world but she, at least temporarily, has had to take a sabbatical from her role as Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Whilst it is understandable that she should want her career to take a back seat at such a tumultuous moment in life – one spouse gets a promotion, the family have to move house – do we really need to see another woman feted for giving up her career? That's not change I can believe in.

The First Lady of the United States (usually abbreviated to FLOTUS) is a Fifties throwback, a woman with nothing to do but hold dinner parties for her husband's colleagues. In a way, she reflects exactly what society still believes a wife should be – an attractive silent helpmeet. Her duties are described as unofficial, and yet she is the acknowledged hostess of the White House. Her role falls under the Executive Office of the President – if this were a salaried job, she would essentially be employed by her husband, a glorified version of hiring the wife as secretary.

Susan Maushart, author of Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, describes marriage itself as "unpaid labour", and in the case of the First Lady, this is especially true. Whilst there are no rules prohibiting her from continuing paid employment, her staff include the White House Social Secretary and the Chief Floral Designer – a not-so-subtle indication of where her priorities are expected to lie. In an article for the Washington Post, Lauren Stiller Rikleen argues that the role of First Lady should be a paid role with a clear job description. But that ignores the reality of Mrs Obama's new position, where a job description is deemed unnecessary because it is still assumed that women will do these things for their husbands as a matter of course – moreover, they want to do these things, and so monetary reimbursement is missing the point.

True, it is an unelected role. But then, neither President Obama's cabinet nor his Chief of Staff are elected. And Michelle Obama, as with all potential First Ladies, has probably received more scrutiny during the course of the Presidential campaign than any of these put together. She was slammed for being anti-American, she was the subject of a controversial cartoon in the New York Times. She's campaigned, gone on TV, been compared with then Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and had every aspect of her life scrutinised. And for all the perks the position brings, she still has to work for them. It is an unspoken assumption that, as well as acting as an unofficial ambassador, the First Lady also devote herself and her considerable resource to humanitarian causes. Michelle Obama has already stated her desire to "work daily on the issues closest to [her] heart: helping working women and families". Whilst this is laudable, it is unclear how exactly this will be accomplished. Although we can assume that she has her husband's ear, any obvious influence on policy risks her being tarred with the same brush as her husband's rival-turned-colleague, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Rodham Clinton had already worked on Arkansas education reform to considerable success when she was appointed head of the Task Face on National Health Care Reform, but saw her approval ratings plummet when it was viewed as nepotism rather than hiring an able strategist, regardless of her marital status. The message was clear – know your place. When Clinton tried to step outside her role as wife and mother and run for political office herself, she was accused of riding on her husband's coattails, never mind that she too had been to Yale Law School, had been a scholar, activist and lawyer. Later on, her critics railed against having another Clinton in the White House when only the outdated attitudes of Arkansas voters caused her to change her name in the first place, a patriarchal re-naming process that threatened to make a dynasty out of the marriage of two intelligent adults.

Following the November election, Slate magazine ran an open letter to the new First Lady in which they begged her "don't dress like Jackie Kennedy." When they warned her that "black with red is too jarring a colour combination for a first lady", the barely-concealed subtext was 'OK sweetie, you've already broken the mould. Just don't push it too far.' Reinforcing the image of the angry black woman that dogged her for a large art of her husband's campaign, she was deemed "too firey when we want you to soothe." Had Hillary won both the Democratic nomination and the Presidency, the press would be awash with speculation about her husband's role – there would, perhaps, have been the occasional article on Bill's choice of attire, but mostly the question of what expertise he could bring to the role would dominate. The message is clear – whilst America may be ready for a President who challenges the old order, the First Lady is still expected to be the calming figurehead, there only to stand still and look pretty whilst her husband is out saving the world.

Men guide, women nurture. The most we can expect is to be the power behind the scenes, the woman behind every great man. But as Michelle Obama steps into her role as First Lady, with a secretary who earns more than she does (in other words, something), we can only hope that she will be different - her Secret Service codename is, after all, "Renaissance".



At 10:54 AM, Blogger Rachel said...

let's see if michelle obama can be as revolutionizing in her role as first lady as her husband is as pres... I bet she will. that lack of defined job description gives her a lot of leeway, at least.


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