The Nation

Why is Michelle Obama Channeling Jackie O?

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.

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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.

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'Most Ambitious Associate Ever'

First lady Michelle Obama reads to children during her visit to Fort Bragg, N.C.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

For more information:

"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

2 COMMENTS | Login or Sign Up to post comments


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"But I see this retreat all too often in the corporate world where
assertive women face severe social sanctions for being themselves."
The above is the most important statement in this article. If Michelle Obama has retreated, you can be sure that she has been subject to pressures to do so that even she could not stand up to and survive.
If you recall my earlier comments on Obama, I have always seen him as firmly against women's equality, and for placing women in niches where they believe they are equal, but, are only speaking to a few others like themselves. Thus, while some outspoken women have good lives, their real ability to affect the position of the every-woman is purposefully limited by other factors over which they still have no control. It is the old problem of everyone get together to talk about it and then all go home and everything is the same.
The real message from the white house is that women are second and belong where their husbands/employers/government men want them to be. As a woman, at age 65, I find that women need to read history a lot more and a lot more carefully, and to every day resist being second in their own lives.

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