By Lisa Nuss
Friday, January 8, 2010
Why did Barbara Walters nominate Michelle Obama as the most fascinating person of the year? Lisa Nuss double checked the transcript--and the first lady's first year--and couldn't find a reason.
Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.
Michelle's boss at the law firm described her as "quite possibly the most ambitious associate that I've ever seen." She went over his head to get higher profile assignments and he added, "I couldn't give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world."
Knowing all of that, Time Magazine still wants to believe Michelle's public show of appearing to be "at peace, even relieved, that her power is symbolic."
It reminds me of our country's position on gay people in the military. In this case the message is: You can be as educated and experienced as your husband, but just please don't act on it because it makes everyone else uncomfortable.
What bothers me most about this "don't ask, don't tell" public persona is that it reinforces a mythical gender dichotomy that Michelle has spent most of her adult life disproving. Meanwhile, reports have the old Michelle pursuing her ambitions behind the scenes, knee deep in policy papers, lobbying and slamming tables to have her say.
I realize it's complicated to describe her actions as a "choice," when it was a recantation wrenched by a hostile public, prompted by the media.
But I see this retreat all too often in the corporate world where assertive women face severe social sanctions for being themselves. Female lawyers particularly are retreating to such an extent that legal historian Mona Harrington warns we're in danger of "permanent subordination." I realize many are uncomfortable publicly confronting sexism, but when high profile women disclaim their ambition with the zeal of converts, it sets us all back.
The cultural affirmation they win for deliberately reaffirming mythical female stereotypes must be bittersweet.
Lisa Nuss is an attorney and writer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Her opinions are posted at http://www.howdareshe.com/.
"The Momification of Michelle Obama," Salon:
"Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama," NPR:
"First Lady is in Control of Building her Image," New York Times
"The Obamas' Marriage," New York Times Magazine
"When Michelle met Barack," The Washington Post
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