Michelle Obama round-up

// 12 January 2009

It’s not long until Barack Obama offically takes on the role of president. Just like during the election, the media has been focusing plenty on Michelle Obama – well, mostly on what she’s wearing and what she’s going to wear in future. Her dress for the inauguration ball will end up in the Smithsonian, according to Michelle Obama Watch. Designers are lining up to design her ballgown. Jezebel posted about how she’s even expected to save the fashion industry. Ann Coulter wrote a book attacking the first-lady-to-be. When does it end? Not any time soon.

That said, here’s a mini-round-up of some Michelle Obama-related posts, which go above and beyond fashion stories (and reactions to fashion stories):

Renee at Womanist Musings makes the connections between the unpaid labour of being first lady, and the way the economy relies on the unpaid labour of millions of women:

As the future first lady, she is one of the most socially constructed individuals in the United States. When she isn’t being called angry, a baby momma, racist, anti-feminist sell out, ape, or unpatriotic, the world is trying to turn her into the next domestic diva. Michelle like all other first ladies is expected to smile pretty, speak when spoken to, refrain from expressing an opinion, while ensuring that the white house runs smoothly. We certainly cannot have a foreign head of state find a lump in their oatmeal.

The first lady has a lot of responsibility on a day to day basis, yet it is unpaid labour. Just like women’s work across the globe it is assumed that this is labour that she will be happy to perform for her husband. Why wouldn’t she want to work long hours for four years unpaid, isn’t that every woman’s dream? A nominal title does not erase the fact that this is labour exploitation. At this time we have never had a first husband but on the occasions that a president has been single, a female member of his family has always stepped in to play the role of first lady unpaid. Being the perfect hostess is supposedly a woman’s pleasure.

Instead of spending so much time focusing on what she is wearing, perhaps women should be asking the more pertinent question of why she isn’t going to be paid for the labour that she will be performing. We should be making connections between Michelle’s unpaid labour and the work that women do in the private sphere daily that maintains the public sphere.

Professor What If…? analyses some of the roles that first ladies are expected to take on, and how gendered they are – for example, first ladies are given the job of choosing the head chef at the Whitehouse:

While many First Ladies have taken strong political stances and served in ways far beyond that of “hostess,” this “wifely support” concept of the First Lady’s role still reigns. Much attention is paid to how she looks, dresses, acts, smiles, walks, etc, etc. Much criticism reigns down when she is seen as too strong, too political, too opinionated, too outspoken. Much better that she serve as presidential arm candy and meal planner! (For more in this vein, see my earlier post here.)

I wonder, if Hilary Clinton had won the nomination and was now president elect, would there be talk of who Bill would choose as head chef? Or, would this ‘womanly’ task be given to Hilary, Chelsea, or another female member of staff?

Michelle Obama Watch posts about a book of letters from African American women to Michelle. As Bridgette says:

Michelle has moved so many people all over the country by being simply who she is. She has a tremendous responsibility and at times, the load will be heavy.

This is only a small Michelle mention, but I think a pertinent one – Cara at The Curvature compares the way Obama’s been treated to the way Yoko Ono was treated:

Michelle Obama gets the Yoko treatment when people suggest that she has too much influence over Barack’s decisions, up to and including pushing those she doesn’t like out of the picture, and when Barack is criticized for having a wife with her own opinions. Everything old is new again.

Finally, Carmen writes about how you anyone can make a pitch for Michelle to come to their event.

Photo by zyrcster, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

dewrose // Posted 12 January 2009 at 4:00 pm

ummm actually she is Not the first lady yet. That title is only for Laura Bush at this time. Also in these tough times, it is a bit hard to appreciate a president elect who is having one of the most expensive and elaborate inauguarations in history. Although I did not vote for President elect Obama, I intend to give him the same respect that many people have given to President Bush these past eight years.

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 January 2009 at 4:18 pm

Fair enough, I’ve changed it to “first lady to be”.

Yvette // Posted 12 January 2009 at 5:07 pm

A couple of years ago my husband was offered a job abroad. I found out that I, as his wife, “wasn’t allowed” to have a job myself in that country, was supposed to just follow him, give up anything that would come under the heading of “having a life of your own” and be responsible for “entertaining” and various other unpaid duties. His prospective bosses even wanted to interview ME, when I didn’t even work for them! I refused point blank. I couldn’t believe it, it was as if I was some kind of chattel. Luckily my husband didn’t want the job any more by then, because he too thought it was outrageous. But some people criticized me and said I was being selfish and damaging his career.

Anne Onne // Posted 14 January 2009 at 11:40 am

Yvette, that’s terrible! It reminds me of what someone said about the wives of male clergy: another unpaid job where the wife is expected to do a lot work bolstering their husband’s career. It’s all just an excuse for them to get free labour in addition to the person whose services they are paying for, and it just rubs me the wrong way.

It’s ridiculous that somoene’s job should demand their family or partner put their lives on hold, give up their career or do unpaid work for that company.

I recognise that a lot of jobs involve ‘extra’ work building contacts and all that (which just makes me feel even more antisocial thinking about all that sucking up people have to do), but I don’t think these have to be innate to the way we structure business or people’s lives. And that’s not even addressing the fact that it’s not HER job or her contacts she is being made to entertain. It is unfair in the end to expect this of anyone, and another indication that wives are seen as their husband’s property to be ordered around as desired. It’s awful that in this day and age women are still told they are ‘selfish’ for wanting to have a life of their own, not do unpaid, unrecognised work for a job they never applied to do, and judged more harshly than men for their choices.

I hope Michelle will find the next 4 (hopefully 8) years of her life a wonderful experience, and I look forward to seeing her effect. I just wish the system won’t be as harsh on her as I fear it will be.

kez // Posted 14 January 2009 at 12:50 pm

I know she will inevitably get a lot of attention and a lot of stick, but I get the impression Michelle Obama is plenty tough enough to cope with it.

I think she’s amazing.

I do find it interesting (read: depressing) how fascinated (read: judgemental) the media is with regard to women who are in the public eye not because of their own careers or whatever but because of who they’re married to. Just look at the vitriol directed at Cherie Blair. I find it amazing how ready people are to roundly abuse someone who they don’t even know, purely on the basis of what they read in the “newspapers”.

Sabre // Posted 14 January 2009 at 2:30 pm

It’s funny isn’t it, that if a couple get divorced the non-earning partner can be compensated for unpaid support to the other partner who was earning (e.g. divorce cases where the woman is financially compensated for raising the children for 20 years, or sacrificing her career for the sake of his). Yet if a couple stays together the unpaid partner often sees no recognition for their work in keeping the home, raising kids, supporting the other’s career.

What a weird society

Laura // Posted 15 January 2009 at 11:34 am


My parents are in the FCO. I say my parents because although only my father works for them, my mother has effectively worked for them for years, especially since he became an ambassador. Finally, and somewhat belatedly, the FCO has started paying ambassadors’ wives a local salary to manage the residence – but in one of our posts, they decided it was too small to need a ‘residence manager’ – then got angry when they weren’t provided with residence accounts, to the extent that my mum had to do them anyway.

To be fair to the FCO, they are getting much better at dealing with couples where both want to work: trying to find local positions in the embassy for spouses, assisting with training as e.g. language teachers so they can continue to work overseas, making deals with countries so that our diplomats’ spouses can work overseas and theirs can do the same in this country, trying to post couples together or at least in neighbouring countries if both are FCO, allowing people to take unpaid leave if they want to follow their partner for a bit. And to be fair the need for one person in a couple to be the follower if the other has an international career is pretty much unavoidable, and there are now a large number of following husbands, though still fewer than following wives, but there definitely needs to be more discussion of this and understanding of the consequences, e.g. for pensions – how are spouses supposed to build up a pension if they can’t work. Again they’re better than they were but still a long way to go.

Cara // Posted 15 January 2009 at 3:58 pm

Yvette – wow. OMG. Is it 2009 or 1959? I swear, actually interviewing the wives; it reminds me of ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ – ‘how to entertain his boss’! UGH.

Name and shame this organisation?!

As for the FCO, sounds like at least they are making some changes, Laura, which is a positive (although as you say sounds like they have some way still to go). Not everyone wants to have a high-flying career and that’s fine; I don’t think ‘trailing’ should be the only option though (not that anyone has said it is). As you mention, if the other partner can find an understanding employer and take leave that is another option.

Thought of applying to FCO myself once…getting to travel the world is appealing, and would definitely not mind having a following partner at home organising the house and family life ;-)

Of course then I realised you can’t choose where to be posted, and could get sent to Mongolia! :-)

But seriously, that’s what men do, progress their careers at the expense of a partner at home doing the domestic work; although I guess running the home of an ambassador isn’t the same as just any home, since they have to entertain a lot and so on? It is good that the FCO are actually paying the ‘trailing’ partner to run the home, but then if they are going to get out of it as you describe by claiming the residence is not big enough, that is ridiculous…just proves how undervalued ‘women’s work’ is.

Jess McCabe // Posted 15 January 2009 at 11:56 pm

Cara – I’d jump at the chance to work in Mongolia. Perhaps not for the FCO though!

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