U. Toledo Professor Speaks Of First Lady's Role

This story was written by Melinda Price, The Independent Collegian
The traditional roles of the first lady could change, some say, when Michelle Obama moves into the White House.

Obama will take her place as the 39th first lady as her husband begins his term in January, making her the first black woman to take the role.

In preparation for the shift in office, University of Toledo's Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women held a brown bag seminar about black women in the White House, focusing on Obama and her future role as first lady. The seminar was presented by Angela Siner, UT professor in the department of anthropology.

"This particular African-American female will bring to the White House the issue of balance that many people in America are experiencing today," Siner said. "Balancing a family and a careerpeople have talked about it quite a bit, and she's one of the first first ladies to come out of a work environment into the White House."

The future first lady's attributes include blunt honesty and being competitive to the point of not wanting to allow her husband to run for president unless she thought he had a good shot at winning, Siner said.

These attributes contributed to her Secret Service codename: Renaissance.

The aspect that sets all first ladies apart from other White House positions is they are neither chosen nor elected, Siner said. They are put into place by default simply because they're married to the president.

The traditional roles of first lady are to be the official hostess and household manager of the White House, wife and mother to the family and to make ceremonial appearances. Obama has the ability to redefine the role of first lady, Siner said.

Obama was born in 1964, which Siner said is important to remember because it's the last year of the baby boomers. The baby boomer generation has a different set of morals than the future "Generation X," so it will be interesting to see what she and future first ladies can accomplish, she said.

Obama is already working on a few special projects with a focus on families, Siner said. During the campaign, she promised to work with military families, and she wants to help with the Family and Medical Leave Act, Siner said.

Tciana Gray, a junior majoring in nursing and a fellow mother, said she hopes Obama addresses family issues in today's society.

"Being a mother, she's going to be involved in family matters," Gray said. "She has been there, so she can be influential [to other working mothers] in that respect."

One of a first lady's roles is to advise and support her husband during the presidency, Siner said, adding she thinks Obama and her family have this part down.

"Whatever he does is not just about him," she said. "Whatever she does is not just about her. It's about the family."

Darice Clayton, a junior majoring in sociology, said the new first lady might bring more substance to the role than her predecessors.

"The first lady is all quiet and stuff, but Michelle Obama will bring more [to the White House] than 'trophy wife,'" Clayton said. "[First ladies] should have more than just the show and glamour, but they shouldn't overshadow the president either."

Siner mentioned a survey conducted by the Siena Research Institute, given to political scientists, that rates the past first ladies on a scale of one to five, with one being the best and five being the worst. Eleanor Roosevelt has been rated No. 1 for the past three decades.

The survey is based on 10 qualities: background, integrity, intelligence, courage, value to the country, leadership, being her own woman, public image, accomplishments and value to the president.
"I think that Michelle Obama will rate high in this survey coming out in 2013," Siner said. "Maybe second, but at least third or fourth."

Obama is qualified enough to run for president herself, Siner said. She acquired a Harvard law degree, but she also completed her undergraduate work at Princeton University with a major in sociology and a minor in African-American studies.

Her thesis for graduation was about Princeton-educated blacks and the black community, which was an issue on the campaign trail. She believed a vast majority of alumni were alienated from the African-American experience, Siner said. Their lives took them further and further from the community.

Obama interviewed 89 black Princeton alumni for her thesis. According to her research, when black, educated students received their degrees, their relationship with the black community decreased.

"Michelle is living out the antithesis to her thesis," Siner said. "She went into corporate America but didn't alienate herself. She made a reconnection to the African community [after receiving her degree].

"The fact that Michelle is the antithesis to her thesis brings forth the issue that being a part of the African-American community and being a part of the larger society are not mutually exclusive," Siner said.
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