More on the Mommy Stamp

WaPo columnist frets about Michelle Obama’s mom-in-chief self-label

Earlier today, Megan wrote about the unfortunate “momification” of Michelle Obama in the press, and focused on a Monday New York Times article about the debate surrounding her “transition from hospital executive to self-proclaimed mom-in-chief.” The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus is one of those women conflicted about what she calls Michelle Obama’s “Mommy” stamp. Marcus’s basic question: If Obama becomes a traditional, sidelined first lady, what will it say about modern working women in America?

Marcus asks why Obama is 1) so quick to identify herself almost solely as a mother, and 2) seemingly so unconcerned with propping up her other achievements—achievements that come with labels like “career woman” or “professional” or “lawyer.” These are rather misguided questions, because Michelle Obama neither ran for public office on a platform of beating back gender stereotypes, nor was ever anything but honest about what her priorities would be should her husband win the presidency.

Here’s Marcus’s primary concern:

I was okay, actually, with what Obama said. But I worried: Did she have to say it out loud, quite so explicitly? Is it really good for the team — the team here being working women — to have the “mommy” stamp so firmly imprinted on her identity?

And most of all: What does it say about the condition of modern women that Obama, catapulted by her husband’s election into the ranks of the most prominent, sounded so strangely retro — more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?

She is, after all — by résumé, anyway — more Hillary than Jackie. But the painful paradox of campaign 2008 is that it came tantalizingly close to giving us an Ivy League-educated female lawyer in the Oval Office but yielded an Ivy League-educated female lawyer sketching out a supremely traditional first lady role.

What the Times article and Marcus’s share in common is a rather myopic focus on Michelle Obama’s résumé and elite education. There’s a palpable concern that if she doesn’t somehow expand and refresh the first lady role in a way that befits the modern, highly educated/motivated/ambitious and working woman, she will somehow shrink to fit the traditional role, leaving her presence in the White House an opportunity wasted.

Give the woman some credit! Obama may be quick to call herself the mom-in-chief, but that’s admittedly a self-appellation that is equal parts truism and press-friendly label. And it’s certainly not the only role that she will inhabit; it’s just the most relevant one. The reasoning that, as a highly educated, professional woman, she must break out of outdated roles (lest she get shackled to them) denies Obama the very agency that her life experience and choices have afforded her.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, writing commentary for, yesterday, ahem, candidly wrote: “I might shoot myself if Michelle Obama, clearly a free-thinking, independent candidate’s wife, follows the example set by white first ladies who did little more than prom queens waving from the parade float.”

Steiner mentions Obama’s black-woman-ness as one aspect of the change she could bring to the White House, but her main point, echoing Marcus’s concern, is that Obama should not place “too high a premium on living a demure, deferential, non-controversial life, at the expense of productive social change.”

This mix of empowered advice and analysis decides to forget the fact that Obama, as much as she’s been a consummate example of today’s do-everything woman, is neither Hillary Clinton nor Sarah Palin. To the extent that she is a role model or inspirational example for women nationwide, she is a voluntary one. And so, if Obama spends most of her time ensuring that her kids don’t get screwed up by the perks and pitfalls of living under a spotlight for four or eight of their formative years, then, well, it’s absolutely her prerogative. (This is not to mention that she’s also someone who will be able to pick up her career as soon as she leaves the White House. “Let’s face it…when she leaves the White House, she’s going to be made a partner at any law firm in the country,” Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, is quoted as saying in the NYT article.)

Marcus complains that while we almost had Hillary Clinton, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, in the Oval Office, we now have Michelle Obama, an Ivy League-educated lawyer who might restrict herself to the more traditional role of mother. She seems highly disappointed by someone who in terms of educational pedigree and professional success could be (if only) another ambitious, career-driven woman in the White House. But that’s as irritating as the statements that heralded Palin as a second coming for female voters. There is nothing empowering about playing replace-a-woman, especially with one who never ran for office. If Marcus wants to write about her frustration that Clinton did not win the presidential office, then she should direct her energies toward 2012 and the arena of political candidacies.

But to compare Hillary Clinton’s high achievements (and what she could have done in office) to Michelle Obama’s high achievements (and what she might do as First Lady) is to compare apples and oranges. And face it: the national spotlight being a crucible pot for familial stress, the duties of presidential spouses (whether First Lady or First Dude) may always be a little bit out of touch with the cultural climate of parenting roles. Why not just come to terms with the fact that being cowed into a traditional role isn’t the same as choosing to take it on?

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.