Michelle Obama: Keeping the Public at a Distance
First Lady Michelle Obama will soon grace the April Vogue cover. I'm happy for her, bangs, biceps and all, but restless, too. What will she be remembered for, really, beside fashion and fitness?
With the spring wind full of words about women "leaning in" and marking the 50th birthday of Betty Friedan's game-changing "The Feminine Mystique," it's a ripe time to come to clarity about the most visible woman in America.
Now past her halfway point, Mrs. Obama still seems opaque and distant, though popular with the people. Mrs. Roosevelt she is not — not even close to leaving her writing on history's wall. She hasn't articulated a vision of the civil rights and the women's movements that happened in her lifetime. She is 49.
So I see an opening to discuss her days in the White House as highly traditional and conventional, except for dancing with Jimmy Fallon on late-night television. Sorry, that wasn't very First Ladylike.
Other than that, she hasn't broken any barriers except the color line in her unelected office. Maybe that's enough. Some say she's savvy to skip a huge policy goal, as Hillary Clinton devoted herself to health care reform, which ultimately went under.
(Chelsea Clinton's Sidwell Friends School nurse was reportedly told to call her father if she was sick; her mother was too busy.)
Mrs. Obama designated herself "Mom-in-Chief," which is a bit disappointing and simple, considering her household help. In playing her role on a public stage, she selected military families and childhood obesity, along with a vegetable garden, as causes to champion. Nobody can argue with those bland choices. Safe as they are, they don't really sing to us of her character. Or do they? Is she keeping it real as a stay-at-home mom writ large?
Frankly, I had higher hopes and expectations for this bright flower of Chicago's South Side.
Like President Obama, Michelle Robinson took an amazing voyage growing up: in her case, from the South Side to Princeton University and onto Harvard Law School. Yet she hasn't breathed a word about her odyssey or obstacles overcame along the way. Her husband Barack wrote a dreamy memoir about his coming-of-age journey. Michelle may be more hard-headed. A public figure, yes, but it's not the life she chose.
Jacqueline Kennedy embraced the arts and the White House restoration as her projects; Lady Bird Johnson led a charge for outdoor beautification; and Laura Bush founded the national book festival. These causes were all reflections of them, authentically close to their hearts and talents. Betty Ford was disarmingly open about seeking help for depression and alcoholism, born of her own experience.
Let me suggest a meaningful national conversation Mrs. Obama could convene. The discovery that she's descended from South Carolina slaves: what a dialogue for 150 years since the Civil War. But she stayed silent on that heritage, too.
Mrs. Obama's decision not to pursue her profession or a policy goal may reflect a wider retreat by the generation that inherited the gains our mothers gave us. Our privileged set has done little to advance the state of play, which is why Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" hit the ground like a revolutionary manifesto. Let's hear more on Mrs. Obama's workplace experience. After all, the Obamas met when she was his supervisor one summer at a posh Chicago law firm.
If she shared more freely, telling her story, how much more inspirational she'd be.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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