First Lady Hurdles

Sarah Seltzer

It's a shame that sham "family values" have made it necessary for candidates' wives to diminish their achievements. But while Michelle Obama may not be able to break the mold, with speeches like hers Monday night, she can shape it until the mold looks entirely different.

the first lady speaks during the DNC, it’s hard not to have mixed
feelings. The first feeling is pride at these remarkable women, their
poise and intelligence. It’s also pride to see that candidates in
the past few cycles have had strong, independent partners, which bespeaks
them well: Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, and Teresa Heinz Kerry are
role models unto themselves.

when thinking of these women’s strength, it’s hard not to recall
the attacks they weathered as a result of that strength. And it’s
hard not to be embarrassed at the charade of wifely duty that is part
of the annual tradition. It’s up to the potential first lady at the
conventions to subsume her feistier qualities in favor of womanly obeisance,
a chance to "introduce" the husband to the world by being his softer,
gentler ambassador.

positively Victorian. 

An unfair burden 

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Monday night, Michelle Obama had a double–if not greater–burden to
bear as the first African-American would-be first lady.

As Michelle Obama Watch has diligently detailed, Obama has
been the recipient of some seriously disturbing right wing smears, from
"baby mama"-gate onwards. Michelle Obama stood at the nexus of the
sexism that dogged Hillary Clinton and the racist insinuations
that follow her husband, living proof that prejudices work in tandem.

through it all, Obama has behaved gracefully, intelligently, and calmly,
and that is the personality she showed America on Monday night. Her
speech was beautiful and moving, and far from substance-free. Many women
in the audience (and probably men too) were in tears by the end.

can be thankful–and awed–that she rose to the task so well. But
we should also see it as a call to action: Obama’s speech should inspire
her fans to share the burden with her, to give her less to prove by
combating prejudice ourselves.

it was a shame that she had so much on her shoulders to begin

are some reactions to Obama’s unduly difficult gauntlet, and the way
she ran through it. For a concise summation, check out the Anxious Black
Woman’s trenchant Obama speech checklist

One of Us 

pundits were watching Monday Night to see if Michelle could repudiate
the "foreign" rumors that have pinch-hit for outright racism
against the Obamas from day one.

was disappointing to see that repudiation be necessary, as artful as
it was. As Adam Serwer put
it in the American Prospect

    Political figures regularly
    go through the motions of presenting themselves as "regular"
    people, but ultimately Michelle’s task was greater: She had to convince
    voters that the color of her skin did not mean she was not an American. 

Obama emphasized
the American-ness of her story over and over again, as if it weren’t
a foregone conclusion. This quiet chorus of "America" was maddening
for those audience members already supporters of the Obamas.
But Slate‘s Dana Stevens pointed out that Obama’s intended audience was
far beyond the convention hall: 

    Her target, which she nailed
    with impressive deftness, was that vague, elusive and maddening clump
    of the electorate that still somehow finds Obama’s wife too aggressive
    and scary and un-First Ladylike, what with the fist-bumping and the
    Harvard degree and the actual opinions on policy. 

The only person who didn’t
seemed moved by Obama’s gentle but firm declaration of patriotism
was Karl Rove, who felt that saying "I love this
country" was somehow not enough for a black woman. But this was the
extreme: even Juan Williams, an erstwhile critic, teared up when speaking about Obama’s speech. 

Downplaying the achievement 

did a beautiful job explaining her family history–and let’s not
forget that "folksy upbringing story-time" is a part of nearly
convention speeches, regardless of the candidate.

what troubled some watchers was the subtle omission of her credentials,
which include stunning Ivy League degrees and an impressive work history.
On Anderson Cooper’s 360 blog, Lisa Bloom wrote

    What a shame that she must
    downplay her brains and hard work, and that it’s considered a resounding
    success that she has now successfully positioned herself as a warm and
    fuzzy potential First Lady because she can speak enthusiastically about
    being a daughter, sister, wife and mother. 

The aspect of the speech in
which Obama brushed aside the heights she’s scaled (this despite her
dad’s not having a college degree at all) was a reminder of the climate
successful women, particularly women of color, face daily–and which
they often deal with by de-emphasizing their achievements. 

Rising to the task 

all the hurdles, the accolades for Obama’s speech were many.

On Tuesday night, Obama faced
the obligatory press queries from PBS’ Judy Woodruff. She said her
speech was not an effort at rehabilitation or reintroduction, but merely
the same thing she’s been doing all along: introducing her family
and her husband, while adroitly pointing out policy suggestions. As
WNYC radio personality Brian Lehrer pointed out, in a brief moment, while discussing
about her and her husband’s paths, Obama mentioned service programs,
job training, after school programs, equal pay for equal work, veteran’s
benefits, and education reform.

a shame that sham "family values" have made it necessary for candidates’
wives to dance an impossible dance. But while women like Michelle Obama,
and Hillary Clinton before her, may not be able to overtly break the
mold, with speeches like these they can shape it until someday, it looks
entirely different.

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