When Lyndon B. Johnson became president, he brought with him a new first lady. Lady Bird Johnson's passion was beautification. It was dismissed by some as a silly project, just planting daffodils by the side of the road. But it was more. Lady Bird was one of the first environmentalists, one with access to the legislative resources of the powerful Johnson White House. She gathered experts and brought the issue of conservation to the nation's attention. Her work led to the passage of 50 bills protecting national parks and removing billboards and junkyards from the highways. Her work was more than just wildflowers. I was reminded of the inability of some commentators to see the real work of first ladies this week when I read a piece in POLITICO Magazine, calling first lady Michelle Obama a "feminist nightmare." And that's why my letter this week is to the Washington reporter who wrote that story, Michelle Cottle.
Dear Michelle Cottle,
Are you serious?
You--or your handful of "feminist" sources--claim that first lady Obama is not a feminist because she says her most important job is being "mom-in-chief" to her two daughters.
In a week when right-wing hatred of the president forced a nuclear change in the very rules of the Senate, your advice to the first lady is to come roaring out of the White House battling for reproductive rights?
You wring your hands about first lady Obama's quote "safely and soothingly domestic" issues. You quote a feminist who "marvels that someone of the first lady's 'capacities and education has done so little of substance.'"
Given how simplistic your piece is, let me make this very simple: you are wrong.
You're wrong to write off the first lady's priorities as fluff. She is fighting childhood obesity, one of the biggest public health crises of our time. And she's not out there just flexing her biceps and mom-dancing with Jimmy Fallon--her Let's Move campaign has helped thousands of child care programs offer healthier food and more exercise. And for the first time in years the CDC says there's a significant decline in obesity in pre-schoolers.
The first lady is not playing it safe with this work. She has drawn plenty of right-wing criticism. No, Ms. Cottle, not everyone loves a vegetable garden.
You also dismiss the first lady's new effort to get more low-income students into higher education by saying it's not "exactly climbing out on a political limb." But a college degree has everything to do with economic mobility and who gets to be in the middle class, and right now only about a third of students in the poorest families go to college. And only about a tenth graduate. The president has been ridiculed as an elitist for suggesting that more people go to college. So if you think there's no political risk, maybe you haven't been paying attention. Also, you misunderstand the place Michelle Obama occupies as the first African-American first lady. You seem to think she is steering clear of the "Angry Black Woman" stereotype.
But when she calls herself mom-in-chief, she is rejecting a different stereotype--the role of Mammy. She is saying that her daughters--her vulnerable, brilliant, beautiful black daughters--are the most important thing to her. The first lady is saying, "You, Miss Ann, will have to clean your own house, because I will be caring for my own." Instead of agreeing that the public sphere is more imporant than Sasha and Malia, she buried Mammy and embraced being a mom on her own terms.
So that can be your feminist nightmare, but it is my black motherhood dream.
And on a strategic note, Miss Cottle: before we enter the 2016 election cycle and the feminists come asking black women for our support for your candidate, you might want to read up a bit on black women and our feminism. I can send you a syllabus!