(WOMENSENEWS)–Is she more Jackie Kennedy or more Hilary Clinton? Is she a feminist or isn’t she? Will she have an agenda of her own or champion causes identified by her husband on the campaign trail? Will women of all races and classes be able to identify with her?
As Michelle Obama stepped into her role as first lady this week with that ceremonial visit with the Bushes at the White House, she’s already offered a few clues.
So far I see her as having a little bit of Jackie–graceful, elegant and stylish–with a hint of Hillary–independent, brilliant and ambitious.
She doesn’t describe herself as a feminist but says that if you laid out a feminist agenda, she would agree with a large portion of it.
She is an all-American woman, yes. But her all-American-ness is shaped by her experience as an African American.
In other words, no matter what comparisons may be drawn, she will be like no other before. Because there is no map or historic reference point for how to be the first African American first lady, Michelle will have the opportunity to define the position on her own terms and provide a rare national glimpse into the everyday lives of an African American middle-class family.
As a professional, a mother and a wife, she will also have the opportunity to expand the limited representation of black women in the dominant culture beyond stereotypes and cliches. As a woman, she will be able to articulate the day-to-day concerns of all women.
What makes her so intriguing is the extent to which women across race and class can identify with her. She is the new everywoman.
Her Struggles Seem Like Ours
Her struggles and concerns seem like ours: How to create work-life balance. How to raise two healthy children. How to make choices that are both good for you and for your family. And until about four years ago–before the explosion of the sales of Barack Obama’s biography–how to make ends meet. From the supermarket cashier to the professor to the single woman without children, every woman can see a piece of herself reflected by Michelle.
She is also real. When asked about her favorite recipe, Michelle replied, “You know, cooking isn’t one of my things.” Unconcerned by the probable gasp from baking mothers across the country, she went on to say, “My view on this stuff is I’m just trying to be myself, trying to be as authentic as I can be. I can’t pretend to be somebody else.”
As first lady, Michelle will have the opportunity to define for a nation what it means to be a Millennium Mother: where cooking is an option, co-parenting is the order of the day and career ambition is a good thing.
For African American women and women of color, Michelle’s move to the White House is particularly sweet.
One of Us
She is one of us.
While many have argued that Barack Obama transcends race by virtue of his biracial background and time spent living outside the United States, Michelle’s identity is more pinned down.
She grew up in a working-class African American family and community on the South Side of Chicago in post-civil rights America as a black woman. All that will no doubt inform her perspective and choices.
It will also allow the country a chance to see the many sides of who we are as women.
On the campaign trail Michelle was often a surrogate for her husband and was able to clearly articulate the issues and concerns of Americans from health care to the current economic crisis.
As first ladies go, Michelle is among the youngest, most educated and most accomplished. An Ivy League-educated lawyer with a background in public service, she will carry not only experience but a deep understanding of a diverse range of issues to her new post.
Some have wondered if Michelle will bring her own agenda to the table or assume the role of a more traditional first lady, such as Nancy Reagan or Laura Bush.
Champion of Working Mothers
I believe she will have the opportunity to do and be both. While she has made it clear that her priorities are her children and her family, she is equally clear about her commitment to champion causes facing working women and mothers. Publicly she has stated she will fight for working women and figure out how to make sure our policies are structured in a way that supports that work-life balance, whether it’s more family leave from paid work or better health care.
The key for her will be to strike a balance, which as mother and professional she can do with her eyes closed.
As wife of the nation’s first African American president, Michelle Obama will have to contend with her own first: being an African American first lady.
In speaking about her undergraduate experience at Princeton she wrote, “I often felt out of place on college campus and as if I really didn’t belong.” As first lady, she faces a similar kind of challenge, because while there may have been only a few blacks at Princeton, she is now preparing to occupy a space never visited before by an African American woman. The difference this time around is that she will be able to draw on those previous experiences for perspective.
As first lady, Michelle will blaze a new path and redefine the position. To be successful all she has to do is be herself and the nation will follow her lead.
C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., is a political scientist and the executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. She is also a senior research fellow at the National Council for Research on Women.
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