Michelle Obama: Powerful or Just Popular?

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According to Working Mother’s Top Ten Moms of 2011, Michelle Obama ranks as one of the ten most powerful moms in the world.  As much as I respect Working Mother magazine, and delight in Michelle Obama (along with most of the world), I beg to differ. 

Michelle Obama IS popular, with approval ratings close to seventy percent. But popular flies a different flag than powerful.  Of all the women in the world I admire, Michelle Obama is the one from whom I’d like to see a little more power-flexing — and a whole lot less bicep-flexing.

The last interesting quote from Michelle Obama was her now-infamous February 2008 campaign cutline that America’s support of a black presidential candidate made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.

I was intrigued by her heartfelt words. As an educationally and economically privileged white American woman, I wanted more on the subject from her.  Of course it’s harder to be proud of this country if you are black, given our history of slavery, economic discrimination and voter intimidation  — but as a white woman, I’d rarely thought about patriotism in that vein. 

Obama opened my eyes to the still-prevalent prejudice black moms face in the workforce, in the polling booth, and in raising children.  She made me think long and hard about what it would be like to be a black mom, holding a child’s hand on the first day of kindergarten at an underfunded and overcrowded public school, or driving with kids in the backseat through a predominately not-black neighborhood, or taking a gravely sick black child to a hospital staffed mostly by white doctors and nurses.

But instead of praising her candor, conservative media and rival politicians portrayed Obama as the stereotypical “angry black woman.” These howls effectively silenced Michelle Obama for the rest of the campaign and the first four years of her husband’s presidency.  She’s hardly spoken up since – in public, at least.  Probably to the satisfaction of her husband’s press office, but to our collective loss.

We see Michelle Obama plenty.  She’s regularly smiling and pumping her arms on the cover of Vogue, People, Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest. We know the contents of her closet and where she shops. We know her height, her weight and her shoe size.

But do we know the contents of her mind?  We rarely hear her opinions on any subjects of substance. 

I for one have seen enough of her upper appendages and her designer clothes, and read enough bland dogma on home-grown vegetables and aerobic exercise, to last me several lifetimes. 

Are fashion and body-toning tips all we can expect from one of the most highly educated First Ladies in history?

Please don’t interpret this as criticism of Ms. Michelle.  I don’t imagine she has a lot of leeway.  I’m sure there is immense pressure – from political advisors, the black community, her husband, the watching world – to play her role as First Black Lady on the safe side.  First, do no harm is a critical political and societal goal for the only black couple to head the White House.  Maybe she’s just presenting an image palatable to Americans squeamish about a smart, powerful black woman running the White House – just as many celebrities craft an image to sell records, win elections, or raise capital.

Hands down, Michelle Obama has won the nation’s popularity contest.  But one of the primal lessons of feminism is that power outranks popularity.  I’m willing to be Michelle Obama has realized that, too.

I’d like to get past the image Michelle Obama projects – and to hear more of her opinions.  Particularly on the subjects she knows firsthand, the thorny topics that bedevil women today.  The importance of education in leveling the gender and racial playing fields (Michelle Obama went to Princeton and Harvard Law School).  What it’s like to be the major breadwinner (she out-earned her husband financially until she became First Mom in the White House).  How to juggle career and kids gracefully and without resentment.  The value of live-in childcare help (her mom moved to DC along with Malia and Sasha).  What it is really like to be the first black First Lady in America  — something I, and the rest of the white women in America, know zilch about.

However pragmatic her strategy, I fear we’ve all lost something invaluable – the opportunity to hear from a black career woman, equal rights advocate, and mom with plenty of moxie and mind capital to share with our country.  Perhaps, whether President Obama is re-elected or not, the freedom from popularity polls will mean more straight talk from his wife.  I, for one, will be listening assiduously.

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