Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Michelle Obama Feminism: For Black Women With Nothing To Prove

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No one can take feminism from women of the African diaspora. It is a black woman's birthright because we could never seek solace in the protections of womanhood narrowly defined. It is ours, yet it seems at every turn, someone is trying to wrestle it from us. Since her appearance at this year's Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama has again been placed at the center of an old debate regarding her feminist credentials.



In front of an audience of millions, the First Lady poured out her love for her spouse of twenty years and affirmed her commitment to her children. She does this often, but this time the stakes were higher. Her husband would accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in a few days.

Mrs. Obama has, since she took residence in the White House, described herself as "Mom-in-Chief." The moniker is safe and comforting for a nation socialized to view Black women as the antithesis of the studied grace she embodies. Some women, usually those with race and/or class privilege, view her embrace of the term as a betrayal. One writer called it "degrading." Michelle's presence as the most visible black woman in America hasn't lived up to everyone's hopes. Even Black women lament that Michelle Obama cast off her work, pedigree, and aspirations. She could have been our Hillary. She's certainly smart and charismatic enough to be "Feminist-in-chief." And although some view her as a "feminist megastar," she's evaded that role. Since her husband's campaign, her impressive career history has been downplayed. She's assured us time and again she's a devoted wife not a political adviser.

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When asked whether she was a feminist by the Washington Post, Mrs. Obama hedged, "You know, I'm not that into labels, so probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it," she said. "I wouldn't identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn't identify as a liberal or a progressive."

She made clear that she does not describe herself as a feminist, so neither will I. It is unwise to haphazardly assign the label to women who don't desire to carry the baggage that accompanies it. However, I take issue with the assertion that Michelle Obama could not be a feminist because of the path she's taken.

The First Lady describes herself as a mother first. This offends the sensibilites of those who believe it each woman's responsibility to enter the workforce and stay there. After all, wasn't that the end goal of the majority-white feminist movement of the 70s? Some feminists have in recent years, doubled down on the rejection of "choice feminism" arguing that every choice is not a good one for women. By her personal goals to attend to her husband's, they argue, Michelle Obama with her fancy degrees and impressive work history, let us all down.

In an article for The Atlantic, Elizabeth Wurtzel doesn't try to hide her contempt for women like Obama who could work but choose not to. She writes, "A job that anyone can have is not a job, it's a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is." Wurtzel's attempt to diminish the significance of motherhood neglects an important point about the lived experiences and history of Women of Color across the world. Women who look like Michelle Obama are not empowered to do the work of mothering.

Examine the history in which African American women who stayed home with their children post-Emancipation were threatened with arrest for violating vagrany laws -- one in which Mrs. Obama, a wife of two decades, was referred to as a "baby mama" by Fox News. Michelle Obama centering the work of motherhood in her life is revolutionary because only relatively recently have African American women been able to put their spouses and their families on a pedestal. By doing so, she helps rewrite the role of Black women in the public imagination.

Not to say that she made the decision to leave the workforce in a vacuum. Obama has been clear that this was not the life she envisioned for herself, but if her speech last week was any indication, she remains radiantly joyful and content.

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Black and brown women will remain leery of feminism because we've seen how white feminists behave when they don't get their way. Even the revered veterans of the Second Wave turned into petulant Veruca Salt's when presented with a challenge (see: Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem circa 2008). White feminists want sisterhood only when it is convenient - only when it costs them nothing and they have something to gain. Feminism doesn't work the same for all communities. Your feminism ain't like mine. Uninformed and tone-deaf generalizations are the result of a willful ignorance of context and history.

Black women have responded to continued exclusion from relevant mainstream feminist discourse and activism with embittered rejection. Michelle Obama may not describe herself as a feminist but she presents for young, Black women like me a new paradigm. A Michelle Obama Feminism is one that acknowledges the breadth of my history as well as my depth of my aspirations. It celebrates the liberating joy and fortitude that has sustained Black women in America for centuries. To me, it feels like home.

Kimberly Foster is the Founder and Editor of For Harriet. Email or Tweet her.

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