Contributed by MOTHERS volunteer and guest blogger Rosanne Weston.
I’ve been reading about the anger at the so-called “momification” of Michelle Obama – the softening of all her high-powered career woman history in favor of her role as helpmeet, mother and foundation of the Obama family. It is the only incarnation of this strong woman of color, we are told, that will play in Peoria. The persona of an intelligent female with an impressive educational and professional resume and strongly articulated opinions is just, in the words of one writer, “more than the American people could take in one election.” Have we really, then, come such a long way, baby? How far is the Michelle makeover from the cookie-bakeoff-ication of Hillary Clinton all those years ago?
Well, we may have some road to travel yet, but let’s pause to acknowledge how significant this election season was. A biracial man elected as President. A woman as a serious contender for the Presidential nomination. A woman running for Vice President. We can raise our glasses to that. And maybe the pundits are wrong about how much the American people can handle. I am not naïve about the extent of sexism and the rigidity of gender roles that exist in our society, but maybe an unreconstructed, opinionated, independent wife/mother/career woman as First Lady, struggling with the work/family life balance in full view of the world, would be embraced by a populace given a chance to see her as a whole person.
But there is another side to this coin. What if Michelle Obama, after graduating from law school and working in public service or corporate law, had decided that she wanted to work full time as a mother? I get the sense that some in progressive circles would see that choice as somewhat disreputable, as something “less than.” It could set a bad example for others, some might say, could make it harder for women who want a crack at that overused metaphor – the glass ceiling. Such a decision could be used as proof that what women really want is hearth and home after all, and, if so, why look to public policy to make combining home life with outside work more feasible than it is right now?
I don’t deny any of the above arguments. But those of us in the Mothers Movement have championed the idea that caregiving IS work. It is work worthy enough to be counted toward Social Security credits and calculated into the GDP, important enough to be accommodated in the workplace through flexible hours and leave policies. The work of the caregiver should be recognized in the public sphere as a valuable contribution to society, to be taken every bit as seriously as the work of the lawyer, teacher, physician.
Why, then, would a woman with the wish and wherewithal to undertake this difficult job be labeled with the diminishing, “just a mom?” Does a woman’s decision to be the primary caregiver for the family make her no more than an extension of her husband, as some have suggested is the case with the Obamas? That language subtly reinforces the idea that caregiving is not on a par with other work, and that undercuts the argument at the foundation of the Mothers Movement. Would we be saying the same thing if significant numbers of men decided to take on that caregiving role? Did anyone suggest during the campaign that Bill Clinton or Todd Palin were extensions of their wives? How much of this devaluation has to do with the fact that caregiving is so often done by women? By now, is the last not a rhetorical question?
I find it distasteful that in the rolling out of each new First Lady she is tweaked and molded to be as inoffensive as possible. Those in this country who demand that wives and mothers be cut along the lines of an old, outdated pattern are disturbing to me and should not be paid so much heed. But those of us who believe in a more open society, one that allows women to be as unruly, successful, outspoken and demanding as men, should also beware of our own tendency to settle into some hardened view of how women should be. Policies should be in place that would allow a woman who so chooses to function both in her profession and as a mother. These are the same policies that would enable a woman/mother who has to work for purely financial reasons, more and more the case now, to do so. But let’s not substitute one unyielding view of how an educated woman/wife/mother should conduct her life with another. Clearly there is no one right way.
Michelle Obama is in a singular position. She will be taking on a job that is held by only one person at a time. The choices she makes in that role, however, along with the expectations we place on her, will be a reflection of our views on the thorny cultural/societal/economic issues of our time. I wish her, and us, much good luck.