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Michelle Obama's Mom-In-Chief Image Is A Cave To Politics And Stereotypes

By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

I commend to your attention a thoughtful Mother's Day piece in the Sacramento Bee from Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton.

Prof. Harris-Lacewell gives a fascinating perspective on the topic of first lady Michelle Obama's commitment to be "Mom-in-Chief" in the White House. Mrs. Obama is certainly much more than that, having taken on advocacy positions for military families, for women and girls and for a variety of other so-called underserved groups.

Prof. Harris-Lacewell attempts to explain the difference between white and black women who in a very public forum take on the mantle of Mom first, career woman second. She says that women's rights advocates who were disappointed when Mrs. Obama did not continue to further her own independent career while in the White House had a different meaning as black women have a different history in this regard. She says white, middle-class gender norms have kept white women in the domestic sphere, but not so for black women:

These women have faced the requirement of employment and shouldered the extreme burden of attempting to effectively parent while providing financially for their families. ... 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.

As noted above, I appreciate Prof. Harris-Lacewell's perspective immensely, but still disagree with it. My white female ancestors also worked out of financial need when many women stayed home. My maternal grandmother worked her way up to become one of the first female directors of a department store's art department in New York City in the 1930s. She and my grandfather had divorced and she worked for sustenance, as she had no other source of income.

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.

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By Bonnie Erbe