What's Missing in the Feminist Debate Over Michelle Obama?

5 years ago

Just before Barack Obama's second inaugural last week, an article appeared in the Style section of the Washington Post bearing the headline, "Four years later, feminists split by Michelle Obama's 'work' as first lady." In the article, veteran reporter Lonnae O'Neall Parker presented evidence of a racial divide among feminists over Michelle Obama's adoption of the sobriquet "Mom-In-Chief," as well as her adoption of such causes as healthy eating and caring for military personnel and their families.

Historically, the Style section was called the Women's pages, and aspiring female journalists were often relegated there and to writing about society teas and home decorating.  

According to Parker, some prominent white feminists accused Michelle Obama of "letting down the team," and one critic referred to Obama's "first mom, gardener thing," as "silly." By contrast, many black feminists embraced Obama's stance, all too aware that, as Parker put it, "black women were long denied the right — or lacked the means — to simply care for their own."

Via email, one of the women quoted in the article, Leslie Morgan Steiner, commented:

I liked Lonnae O'Neal Parker's article but i have a lot more to say about Michelle Obama and her appeal to both black and white women.

I find the focus on her looks and toned arms disappointing.  American feminists (true that this means mostly white women) have worked so very hard to get away from a woman's value being her physical appeal, i would hate to see our black sisters fall into the same ugly trap. i want to know what is inside Michelle Obama's mind, not what designer she chose for the Inauguration Ball!

I also think that many well educated white women take much for granted that black women cannot take for granted.  in many ways, many of us are very isolated from the reality of what it means to be black and female in america.  i am not sure, at this moment in time, white women can possibly appreciate how justifiably overjoyed, proud, and amazed black women are to have a beautiful, smart black First Lady in the White House.

The article generated more than 1400 comments debating the merits of Michelle Obama's choices, the proper expectations of First Ladies, and whether the perceived feminist racial differences were real or a media-generated fiction.

What remained unexplored is the actual work that Michelle Obama has done as First Lady. While most of the media attention has gone to her clothes, cookie recipes and feats of physical fitness like the time she danced the Dougie with a schoolyard full of kids, her work has had real-world public policy and legislative impact.

Take Obama's Let's Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity. The program's charge grew out of a presidential task force whose work was hailed by leading organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  Through that initiative, Obama has spurred grant fundinginitiatives that will improve access to healthy food in food deserts. She worked with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to promulgate rules for healthier school lunches.  Disappointing some activists, she  forged public-private partnerships aimed at getting large food producers to voluntarily cut calories in their foods. 

According to a 2012 article by Bridget Hounsel for the Food and Environmental Reporting Network, healthy food activists hoped that Obama's championing of their cause would bring much-needed attention to their issues:

It’s hard to imagine a better spokeswoman for the problem of childhood obesity than Michelle Obama. She’s not just charismatic and glowingly fit, but whether dancing the Dougie with school kids or digging in a carrot patch, she puts forth a disarming everymom persona that doesn’t wag a finger but says instead, “We’re all in this together.” She has couched the political in the personal by sharing her struggle to put healthy food on the table and keep her girls at a healthy weight. She even wrote about it in a gorgeous book published this year about the White House garden. It’s all gone a long way to scrubbing off the elitist label that often tarnishes advocates who seek to change the food system and make the obesity issue a national concern. 

Dr. Michelle Ferrier, a communications professor at Elon University, launched her website LocallyGrownNews.com as President Obama and the First Lady were coming into office in 2009. The site focuses on local food awareness and food policy and has followed the work of the Let's Move campaign.

"I think Michelle Obama has been very strategic in selecting nutrition and exercise as her issues, contrary to the views of some feminists," she said. "The local food movement has gained a tremendous amount of traction nationwide in the past four years, and Let's Move has capitalized on that momentum to push healthy eating to the forefront. However, strong corporate and political interests have pushed back against product changes or better labeling for consumers, key strategies of the Let's Move Initiative."

Ferrier also believes that the growth in farmers markets, organics and other local food options is primarily seen as a white, middle-class issue. But with the First Lady lending her bully pulpit to the issue, Michelle Obama has ensured that urban communities and communities of color are part of this growing national conversation.

In an interview with Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More,  Parker and pundit Maria Teresa Kumar suggested that race and class might be part of the reason that Obama's focus on childhood obesity isn't getting the attention it deserves. As Kumar put it:

So then these causes perhaps don't resonate with the feminist blogosphere because they're largely white, middle-class, upper middle-class and, from where they stand and sort of radiate outwards, these are not causes. They go under the radar for many of these women and they see them as perhaps less serious, having less gravitas, but for a huge segment of the population these are galvanizing and engaging, and these are things that animate their days and their concerns. How do I keep my children healthy? I live in a food desert. How do I have access to better eating and more organic foods? And, certainly, the concerns that military families face without the kinds of resources that some of the other critics of the First Lady have at their command."

Healthy food activists who cheered Obama's Let's Move campaign apparently hoped that the power of her image would draw more people into substantive discussions of the real and pressing issues associated with childhood obesity. Instead, the focus on her gestures to promote fitness and nutrition seems to have sparked a debate that gives short shrift to those issues.

Yes, Obama talks about the centrality of motherhood in her life, waxes sentimental over her nuclear family, proffers homemade cookies and urges us to grow and eat our vegetables. But she also advocates for legislation, negotiates with captains of industry and uses her bully pulpit. Whether or not one agrees with the stances she has taken or the strategies she's used, the work she's doing is real, and not "silly" at all.

Have you followed the Let's Move campaign or Joining Forces, Obama's initiative with Dr. Jill Biden to help returning veterans and their families? Do you think either program gets the media scrutiny that it deserves?

Credit Image: © Pete Souza/DPA/ZUMAPRESS.com/

Dec. 24, 2012 - Kailua, Hawaii, USA - First Lady Michelle Obama reacts while talking on the phone to children across the country as part of the annual NORAD Tracks Santa program. Mrs. Obama answered the phone calls from Kailua, Hawaii.

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