PAUSING AND THE ISSUE OF RACE
We all have our heroes, but for me, Michelle Obama is at the top of the list. Sure she’s a fashion icon and has done wonders for childhood health and obesity, but it is how she has integrated her work and personal priorities that I find so deeply inspirational.
Before she became first lady, she was a lawyer, a public servant, and a vice president at the University of Chicago’s Medical Center. She was also a mother to two young daughters and the primary breadwinner for the family. While Barack Obama was busy devoting himself to his work as a community organizer and rising politician, Michelle was “leaning in.”
In 2008, when her husband was running for office, Michelle Obama was asked what she planned to do professionally if he won. Her answer? “My most important job will be Mom-in-Chief.” It was a sucker punch to those who imagined Michelle and Barack as the ultimate power couple, she working on policy while he ran the country. Most were willing to overlook her statement as political posturing meant to calm more traditional voters and preferred to believe that once Barack was in office, she’d roll up her own sleeves and apply her many talents and skills in some significant way.
Instead, once in office, she focused on helping her daughters make the tough transition to Washington and on helping other children with her campaigns promoting healthy eating and exercise. When her husband decided to run for a second term, hopes were again raised that maybe now she would start doing something really important.
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Then in 2012 at the Democratic National Convention, as she finished her speech introducing her husband, Michelle Obama said, “And I say all of this tonight not just as first lady, and not just as a wife. You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘Mom-in-Chief.’”92 In other words, she meant it. She really meant it.
As you can imagine, her speech created a firestorm Lilith Dornhuber wrote in a comment on Feministing.com, “Judging by Michelle Obama’s speech, feminism is dead to the Democratic party.”93 She went on to accuse the first lady of “valorizing mid-20th-century gender roles.” Jessica Valenti, a well-regarded Millennial feminist writer and leader wrote, “I long for the day when powerful women don’t need to assure Americans that they’re moms above all else.”94
But Michelle Obama’s choices go beyond feminist rhetoric. When she paused her career to become “Mom-in-Chief,” she didn’t just send a signal that highly qualified women can pause, she sent a signal that highly qualified women of color can pause.
For decades now, we have scrutinized unemployed women of color (and in particular, African American women) and questioned their actions. Sure white women might “choose” to pause their careers, but when women of color do it, they bump up against racist and classist notions related to welfare.
In 1976 when he was running for office and again in the 1980s when he actually was in office, Ronald Reagan said he would fight to prevent fraud and protect taxpayers’ dollars from those who might “cheat” the system the “those” here being primarily under-resourced mothers of color. The term “welfare queen” became code for black mothers in poverty who needed the support of welfare to survive. To this day, that term and the women it represents are paraded around by the far-right as a threat to our country.
In the past decade, we are seeing more and more women of color leave the workforce when they have children. Some of this is as a result of a system that provides no support to under-resourced women, and some of it has to do with family values.
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