Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Michelle Bares Arms and Bakes Cookies: So What?

I am humbled and grateful to introduce today's guest post from the brilliant Emma Akpan, a fellow Duke Divinity School graduate. Emma Akpan is an activist and minister living in Raleigh, NC. When not writing about women or repro health, Emma enjoys the gym and Netflix. Emma doesn't think time should be wasted spending sunny days inside or eating bad food.

When Michelle Obama burst by Barak Obama’s side in 2007, announcing her husband’s presidential bid, feminists everywhere, black and white, expected her to roll up her designer sleeves revealing well-toned arms and be our champion. She was going to influence equal pay, she was going to stop violence against women, she was going to break all glass ceilings for all of us. In 2008, she told someone that “for the first time, I was not proud of my county,” and was heavily criticized by right-winged media. She was called Barack’s “baby mama,” a derogatory term for mothers who are no longer in a relationship with their co-parents. They labeled her as “fierce” and “angry.” So naturally, to protect herself, she toned it down a bit. She picked a rather benign subject, healthy living and fitness, and focused on raising her daughters. Although she was still criticized by mostly the right media for forcing children to give up their sweets and goodies, the racialized criticism has waned.

But feminists continued to criticize her. In a recent Politico article, Michelle Cottle accused Michelle Obama of “Leaning Out”, in reference to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, push for women to lean into their careers and leadership. Because Michelle focuses on issues related to domesticity and motherhood, healthy living and exercise, she became a “feminist nightmare.” Because, of course, it is blasphemy for anyone to call themselves a feminist and prefer motherhood over making edgy career choices.

But let’s nuance Michelle Obama’s choices here. True, she didn’t enter the White House with her boxing gloves her publicly introducing policy. She didn’t choose a particularly tough issue as her pet cause. But she did something revolutionary for Black women -- she made the choice to be a mother.

Historically, Black mothers have not had the luxury of keeping a home and primarily raising their children. During slavery, Black mothers nursed white babies, prepared meals for their white slaveholders, cleaned the slaveholders yard, or if they worked in the fields, endured long hours outdoors through forced labor. After Emancipation, not much had changed. Black mothers were expected to work as primary breadwinners of their homes. Their Black male partners did not make enough to maintain a roof over their heads and food for their children, so two incomes were always necessary. Black women didn’t have the choice of staying home and doing what Michelle Obama does -- gardening, baking cookies, and making sure her presidential daughters have a well-rounded education and as normal a life as possible.

Oh, we know Michelle is qualified. Most of us can recite her credentials like a litany. Undergraduate from Princeton, J.D. from Harvard, young associate at a law firm where she met Barack, and years of activism to follow. Yes, she is more than qualified to influence policy.  Yet now, as her husband is president, she has an opportunity to make her daughters a priority. She chose a subject to help other mothers, of all colors, to keep their children healthy as she has chosen to do. There are so many mothers who desperately want to do this for their children. They want to provide healthy home cooked meals so important for their physical and mental growth They want their children to lead a lifestyle that will be the foundation for their careers. But so many mothers also must work 12 – 14 hour days, most of the time taking multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads.

Michelle, for many of us, inspires us to work hard and stick to our values so that our children can achieve their dreams. But Linda Hirschman wants to rob Michelle of the privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries by mocking Michelle, saying: “She essentially became the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s.” Finally, when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. Being the “lady of a manor” is a privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries, and when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. It reminds me of the poem by Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman” when she said: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?” The dichotomy between White womanhood and Blackness is highlighted in Truth’s piece. White women were allowed to be the pure, cherished and adored women whereas Black women were discarded; our bodies were used and not seen. Michelle Obama is the realized vision of many Black women before her; she is in a highly cherished role, traditionally sacred, as a wife and mother. Her role expands our society’s vision of Black women; we can be educated, enterprising, strong and independent, but also motherly, domestic and feminine.

For once, a Black woman is not an object of labor. And most importantly, it’s nice to see a Black woman have the choice to have a successful career and spend time being a mother. Feminists fight against motherhood and domesticity because society forced them to remain in the home and barred them from financial freedom. Large companies did not hire women. Women were unable to get a credit card until the 1970s. Forced domesticity and blockage from the public arena are important symptoms of patriarchy, but we must remember, feminism is about choice. A woman should do what she pleases, as long as she is doing it freely. Michelle Obama’s motherhood is liberating for many women across the country, because they can continue to dream to provide the same healthy and full lifestyle for their children.