Commentary Politics

Michelle Obama and Betty Ford: How One Used Her Power and the Other Still Could

Rebecca Sive

I am very grateful for Michelle Obama and Betty Ford, two American girls whose heartland families instilled such high ambitions in their daughters. But it sure would be wonderful if Michelle Obama, First Lady, were able to be like Betty Ford, First Lady, in leading courageously on women's rights.

“What is not debatable is that Betty Ford’s tenure as First Lady was the last time in American politics that someone in that role could inspire bi-partisan admiration—even while expressing her own political views.  American politics has become so polarized, and the culture wars so fierce, that First Ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters. Betty Ford’s passing reminds us of what has been lost in our political culture.” 

While I agree with Carol Joffe “…that [today] First Ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters,” I’m perplexed at the suggestion that being “broadly liked” is a sufficient standard of review, as well as by Joffe’s apparent assertion that this need for First Ladies to be bland is something new. It isn’t.

Remember Eleanor Roosevelt, please. 

She could have been bland, and, consequently, “broadly liked,” but she wasn’t.  Instead, Roosevelt understood the needs of her times, and the power of the First Lady’s bully pulpit, and chose otherwise.

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In fact, every First Lady has the opportunity to define the role. Yes, for Betty Ford, there was Pat Nixon, but there was also Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Fortunately for the rest of us, Betty Ford chose Eleanor Roosevelt.  

As a result of making this choice, today we remember Betty Ford as a political leader of the first American rank: Great political leader, not great First Lady, because she chose, as First Lady, to use her bully pulpit to advocate to make life better for American women, to advocate for nothing less than our equality.

Yes, Betty Ford was fortunate that she was “broadly liked,” notwithstanding her political views, but the fact is that she wouldn’t have done what she did, and said what she said, if she had been worried about being liked. She wasn’t, and so she said what she said, and did what she did, for the rest of us.

Besides, I don’t think the “being broadly liked” standard of review is sufficient to the need in these dark days, if it ever was. Certainly, it wasn’t in Betty Ford’s 1970’s, post-Roe v. Wade America, when we were battling to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to secure our equality.

I repeat:  Fact is, Betty Ford had a choice then, just as Michelle Obama does now.

Yes, childhood obesity and the plight of military families are significant problems that plague America. But they are not our main problems. The main problem today– in Michelle Obama’s First Lady time– is just the same as it was in Betty Ford’s First Lady time: American’s women’s lack of equal access to opportunity.

Yes, it’s a good thing that Michelle Obama is so widely admired, but she could be so much more, especially for the millions of downtrodden American women, including those who lack adequate reproductive health care and access to abortion. Why can’t she be a political leader of the sort First Lady Betty Ford was?   How to think about this on this day when Michelle Obama joins Betty Ford’s family to mourn a First Lady who had American women’s equality and reproductive rights first in her heart, mind and speech all the time?

Rightly so, President Obama is fond of telling us how gifted First Lady Michelle Obama is.

Indeed: She is as well-educated as he is; she is equally compelling as a public speaker; she is equally accomplished professionally; and, when younger, she was as committed as he was to a career devoted to securing equality and social justice.

I first met Michelle Obama twenty years ago when she asked me to join the board of directors of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies.  What a treat it was to hear her speak of her dreams of social justice and equality. I’m missing that Michelle Obama right now.

As I was thinking about Betty Ford’s advocacy for abortion rights, I went back to read the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, rendered when Betty Ford was the spouse of one of the most important Members of the U.S. Congress. It’s easy to imagine Betty and Jerry Ford, who shared the same view on abortion rights, sitting at that suburban Virginia breakfast table, discussing the section of the decision I quote below: 

“This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment‘s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

I imagine that Michelle Obama read that same paragraph while at Harvard Law School. I imagine that it resonated with her, just as it did with Betty Ford.  After all, for Michelle Obama, this Fourteenth-Amendment cornerstone of the Roe decision was the very same Fourteenth Amendment that freed her slave ancestors.

I am very grateful for these two inspiring First Ladies, Michelle Obama and Betty Ford. I am very grateful for these two American girls whose heartland families instilled such high ambitions in their daughters. They are both terrific role models for the rest of us, both testaments to the power of working hard and persevering to achieve for oneself and in order to help others.

But it sure would be wonderful if Michelle Obama, First Lady, were able to be like Betty Ford, First Lady, in yet another way:  To be an unabashed advocate for equality for American women, including women who need to choose abortion.

Analysis Abortion

Fetal Rosaries, Our Lady of Fatima, and the Spanish Inquisition: Welcome to the 2014 March for Life

Adele M. Stan

The March for Life, the yearly protest on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, is a Catholic affair, supported by the bishops and the pope. And Republicans.

In a windowless room in a Washington hotel, a religious summit of sorts is taking place. The protesters who make an annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital for the March for Life have gathered to “meet and greet” the very Catholic Rick Santorum, father of seven, and the very Protestant Jim Bob Duggar, father of 19.

What unites the two is a simple belief: that a woman should be willing to break her body in childbirth for the sake of bearing as many children as possible.

The march is an annual protest, held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, making it the perfect platform for Santorum, the former contender for the Republican presidential nomination whose signature issue is his no-exceptions opposition to abortion, even if he is better known for his views on gay sex. (Santorum also opposes contraception.)

Santorum

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In one corner, several children and young people converse with the older two Santorum girls; across the room Jim Bob Duggar, star of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, is talking with an elderly couple from Wisconsin, cheering the 2013 passage of that state’s forced ultrasound law, which he calls “the heartbeat bill” for its requirement that technicians performing the medically unnecessary ultrasound mandated by the law for women seeking abortions also “provide a means for the pregnant woman to visualize any fetal heartbeat.” His wife, Michelle, is chatting up another couple.

MichelleDuggar

As Santorum makes his way toward the door, an older man approaches to ask the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania if he’ll be running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, as he did in 2012. “I’m thinking about it,” Santorum replies with a smile.

* * *

The meeting room areas of the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill, which served as home base for the March for Life activists, have all the charm of an underground bunker. Down the escalator from the room where the Santorum-Duggar meet-and-greet took place, exhibits by anti-choice groups, all with a distinctly religious flavor, occupied a drab conference space in the building’s basement.

Crossing the threshold into the exhibition hall was like entering a time warp into Catholic culture as it existed before the modernization attempted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. There were booths staffed by nuns in habits—the medieval dress abandoned by most orders after Vatican II—and one staffed by robed monks.

Nuns

Ubiquitous among the give-away trinkets that graced exhibit tables were plastic rosary beads. And everywhere, there were images of Mary, mother of Jesus, in her many incarnations. Human Life International favored Our Lady of Czestochowa, otherwise known as the Black Madonna, depicted in the famous icon as a dark-skinned woman with a dark-skinned baby. Our Lady of Guadalupe is another popular image among the anti-choice Catholics who dominate the March for Life scene. The monks used a Madonna image as the logo of their Cafe 4 Mama, “the pro-life coffee.”

At the table for Archangel Gabriel Enterprises Inc., staffed by a middle-aged Black man (one of very few Black people among the March for Lifers), a statuette of a Mary-like white woman was styled as a kind of hipster teenage mom, her veil replaced with a floppy white beret, her customary blue-and white robes reinterpreted as a loose tunic-and-vest ensemble. But what really set her apart from standard images of the Blessed Mother was her big, pregnant belly, complete with protruding navel. Surrounding her was a set of blue glass rosary beads. Each bead, said the man staffing the booth, was to represent a tear, and inside each “tear” was the image of a fetus, rendered in gold-colored metal. The set could be had for $20. Laid out within the circle formed by the beads were three small models of beige-colored fetuses.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 11.50.30 AM

Here was the fundamental difference between the pre-Vatican II church and the right-wing Catholic cults of today: In the old days, such a graphic depiction of a pregnant Mary would be unthinkable, and fetal imagery was absent from religious paraphanalia. Before women had access to birth control and the legal right to abortion, such explicit depictions were unnecessary as objects of veneration. Church and state were in agreement on the limits of a woman’s freedom.

Then, with the rise of the women’s movement, state betrayed the patriarchy, first with the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, which guaranteed a right to birth control, and then in 1973, with Roe v. Wade. The patriarchy responded with all the elegance of an abusive husband.

For respite from the fetuses and madonnas, I visited a booth whose materials featured slick and appealing graphics, devoid of developing embryos or religious regalia. “Save the Storks,” read the backdrop behind the table. “Are you saving actual birds?” I asked of the young white woman who staffed it. “No,” she said, laughing. The organization, she said, provides vans equipped with state-of-the-art ultrasound equipment that “can be parked right outside Planned Parenthood clinics.” The vans are painted in cheerful shades of blue and pink, some with the slogan, “You Have Options!”

Next to Save the Storks was a booth staffed by nuns, a display rife with religious trinkets and literature. An enormous tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe provided their backdrop. I plunked down $5 for a sticker book, Saints for Girls. I don’t know why. Most of them, naturally, met terrible fates.

Near the table that displayed “A Window to the Womb: 4D Ultrasound Images,” was a booth for Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), an organization born in 1960 of the backlash to land reform in Brazil, whose founder, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, described the Spanish Inquisition as “a glorious moment” for the Roman Catholic Church. TFP, which was also allied with the Pinochet regime in Chile and made common cause with the leaders of apartheid South Africa, is an all-male organization that trains young men in medieval combat.

 * * *

As the marchers made their way to the National Mall on a sunny, frigid day with windchills below zero degrees, the streets seemed flooded with the green-and-white signs doled out by the Knights of Columbus stamped with black block letters reading “Defend Life.”OccupyKids2

Several women drifted by with pink signs. One read “Conceived From Rape: I Love My Life.” An analog version read “Mother From Rape: I Love My Child.”

Young people were everywhere, recruited from Catholic colleges and high schools. Many carried signs that read “I Am the Pro-Life Generation.”

About a block from where a rally was staged on the National Mall as the kick-off event for the march, which would culminate at the Supreme Court, was a makeshift platform festooned with yellow balloons and flanked with yellow-and-white papal flags. Three young men in matching, hippie-style, hand-woven hoodies chanted anti-choice slogans, while a drum corps below, wearing the same outfit, performed in response. A big, yellow banner behind them simply read “LIFE.” It was as if the young people figured Pope Francis was just kidding when he urged the church to lighten its emphasis on opposition to abortion and LGBT rights. Surely they took heart from his shout-out, via Twitter, to March for Life activists earlier in the day.

The display was clearly influenced by the protests of the Occupy movement, yet interpreted, without irony, in a framework of uniformity and precision.

Three vans from Save the Storks were parked across the street.SaveTheStorks

Groups carrying wide banners represented Catholic dioceses and archdioceses from across the nation: St. Augustine, Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, Newark, and more. Along the route, the red standards of TFP flailed in the stiff winds.

One man carried a large photograph of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, inscribed with this quote from the right’s favorite victim: “You have a God-given right to live! And, of all places, inside your mother. What in the world happened to us?”

Phil Robertson 2

As marchers assembled in front of a large stage erected on the Mall, a military-style chant was roared by a group of young men. I didn’t catch the first part, but the second half went: “Nothing finer in the land than an Irish Catholic pro-life man.”

The crowd of thousands stood patiently, listening to speakers for an hour in temperatures that barely broke into the double-digits. March for Life President Jeanne Monahan read the pope’s tweeted message to the crowd. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) promised a vote on the House floor next week for HR 7, a sweeping anti-choice bill. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) stepped up to accuse President Obama of promoting “abortion violence.”

The theme of this year’s march was adoption, said Monahan, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) was on-message, saying that since there weren’t enough babies available for adoption, every unexpected pregnancy should be brought to term. (See Rewire’s report on the rally, here.)

By the time a youth activist who organized her high school homecoming event around the issue of “adoption, not abortion” came to the podium, I calculated that my toes had been numb for at least 20 minutes, so I briefly sought warmth in a nearby McDonalds, then headed for the subway, figuring to meet the marchers at their final destination, the Supreme Court.

By the time I hiked from Union Station to the Court building, they had already arrived. The street in front of the Court was filled with banner-bearing and sign-carrying marchers, the sidewalk clogged with anti-choicers holding ad hoc prayer vigils. In front of the Court, marchers held a large banner that read “We Are Abortion Abolitionists.”

A young woman and a young man, who looked to be of high school age, built a small snowman, and affixed a “Pro-Life Generation” sign to it. Another young woman had a friend snap her photo with an iPhone as she jumped up, both heels to one side, holding the same sign.

Snowman

A group of six or so young men in blue plastic ponchos parted the crowd as they walked toward the steps of the Court bearing a statue of Our Lady of Fatima on a platform that rested on their shoulders, quickly drawing a gathering around them of people praying the Apostles’ Creed. The appearance of the Blessed Mother to three schoolchildren in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, is a favorite of anti-communists, as the children said she called for the consecration of Russia.

Fatima 2

The windchill was said to be -2 degrees Fahrenheit. Three hours after the kick-off rally began, the anti-choice activists were still out in force.

Commentary Politics

Michelle Obama’s Garden Is Political

Natasha Chart

People who think food is apolitical don't know much about food, just like people who think taking care of kids isn't important don't know much about kids. Devaluing either isn't just ignorant, it's dismissive of the women who take on these essential roles to life and society.

Read more on so-called feminist critiques of First Lady Michelle Obama here. 

Michelle Cottle recently wrote a deservedly maligned hit piece in Politico Magazine about First Lady Michelle Obama called “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” It was the umpteenth article to come out that could have been titled “Why Isn’t Michelle Obama Meeting Everybody’s Expectations?”

Inevitably, such articles must point out how popular the first lady is, and how much everyone likes her—except, supposedly, feminists. Really? Did someone take a poll? Was there a referendum? Are feminists just the handful of professional opinion writers and one university staffer quoted in Cottle’s article? If so, these are sad days for the movement; the activists of Respect ABQ Women, for one, are sure to be ticked when they find out they don’t exist.

Mainly, though, I would like to take issue with Cottle’s dismissal of Michelle Obama’s gardening as the first in a list of “safely, soothingly domestic causes.”

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As Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, is quoted as saying in Cottle’s article, “How can you hate a vegetable garden?”

Here’s how, courtesy of the Mid America CropLife Association, an industry association for large agricultural chemical manufacturers, from March 2009:

Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an “organic” garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama’s and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder. As a result, we sent a letter encouraging them to consider using crop protection products and to recognize the importance of agriculture to the entire U.S. economy.

This statement from the group’s letter to the first lady is worth some analysis: “Congratulations on recognizing the importance of agriculture in America!” It comes off as condescending, and it is. Though the agribusiness industry works hard to downplay the importance and power of agriculture in the United States, unless you happen to be an elected official. In public, they hide behind “family” farmers who run massive factory feedlots or whose crops span hundreds of acres. In the corridors of power, at the behest of agribusiness, semi-official United States farm policy has been “get big or get out” since the Nixon administration.

Agriculture, a massive and highly consolidated industry run by a few powerful monopolies, works largely on a model of dictatorial control over farmers and ranchers, backed by a paid, private court system for negotiating contract disputes. The absolute geographic monopolies of meat packers and crop commodity companies often means that if a conventional farmer criticizes these extremely vindictive corporations, they often have no one to sell to and may have to leave the business.

Even when farmers try to get out of this system, by going organic or trying other distribution models, they still aren’t safe from malicious lawsuits over genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination of their crops. Undaunted in leading the way toward a new model are the latest generation of female farmers in the United States prioritizing a sustainable and organic agricultural practice that rejects synthetic crop chemicals.

Most of these women farmers work at a small scale, earning less than $25,000 a year. It’s easy to look at this as a new trend but it isn’t; not historically, not as a world cultural norm.

Women have farmed, have grown food that sustained people’s lives, for as long as there has been farming. Except that when women do it, it has usually been referred to as gardening, or perhaps being the farmer’s wife.

But in cities and on small-scale farms all over the world, women are continuing a longstanding tradition of trying to make up their families’ food deficits with few resources and little support.

In developing countries, women account for 60 to 80 percent of food production, but receive only 5 percent of government agricultural services. While organic and particularly small-scale agriculture has a much smaller place in U.S. food production than it does in many other countries—something that’s been true since the Dustbowl era and the Great Depression, when we began a major shift away from smallholder agriculture that’s accelerated faster over time—it’s still underfunded relative to its market share.

The multinational conglomerates that dominate U.S. and world agriculture would like to keep things that way, with any alternatives to large-scale factory farming and chemical agriculture ignored, underfunded, or delegitimized. They would rather people not find out that artificial scarcity and poverty are bigger drivers of hunger than the size of the food supply, or that expanding organic agriculture is compatible with improving global food security. They would prefer you to believe that we are all going to starve unless everyone uses their genetically modified crops and factory farming methods.

In the face of that, First Lady Michelle Obama decided she was going to have an organic vegetable garden.

Not being on her staff or a member of her inner circle, I have no idea if Mrs. Obama shares my views on the importance or role of organic agriculture. But I’d be surprised if she didn’t know even before getting that industry letter that some people regard it as a dangerous political statement to make a point of growing food without synthetic crop chemicals, some of which have been linked to rising obesity, among other concerns. Since crop chemical manufacturers have effectively prevented most systematic government research into the public health effects of their products as they are likely to be present in the environment for farm workers and consumers, information about potential harm comes out in isolated bits of information that are impossible for most people to keep track of. Eating organic is, while imperfect and too often expensive, the only way to opt out of this massive, uncontrolled public health experiment.

I also haven’t been given the inside scoop on the rationale for her healthy eating campaign, but the food industry loves it when people think that recommending a diet high in fresh, low-sugar foods is apolitical—something nice, meaningless, or insubstantial. Large corporations spent several decades and many millions of dollars stifling research on the health effects of sugar alone, and lobbying to end any official government mention of even the possibility of a relation between sugar and any health problems. Everyone with a big cash stake in the food industry, from meat producers to chemical manufacturers, weighs in on U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional standards and health recommendations without regard to anything but securing higher profit margins.

So it’s kind of a BFD, as Joe Biden might say, to raise these topics at all.

Both the implied support for organic food and a diet focused on fresh, unprocessed foods, are stances that I was glad to see the first lady taking. Coming from the food policy world, I’d say they’re highly political and incredibly important to the country’s health and future.

Do I wish she’d handled the politics around food issues differently? No—though I do appreciate the work she’s done to raise awareness, work for which I’d note that she is not being paid. Michelle Obama’s friendly, low-key educational campaign has done a great deal to directly reach children as they’re forming habits for a lifetime, children that more typical forms of activism would not have been able to speak to. If kids are going to have any counterweight to the bombardment of advertising for processed food, and can get that from a beloved first lady who’s an impressive role model, I count it as more good in the world than most people are likely to achieve in a lifetime.

Positive improvements in people’s lives are ultimately measured by the net benefit to the individual, not the stridency of the argument for those improvements. Given a choice between any number of healthier children and any number of opportunities to rage against the food industry machine, I’d take the healthier children.

Mrs. Obama also accomplished all this on top of deciding to make sure that her own children had at least one parent to always be there for them, at a time in their family’s life when their other parent has a job with an incredibly long, punishing schedule. As many commentators have noted, it’s a revolutionary choice for a Black woman to make, when traditionally their nurturing skills have been devalued unless they were looking after a white family’s children, as if their own, Black children were not really worth the same effort.

Full-time parenting is also a path that many parents, of many backgrounds, usually mothers, have found themselves choosing when they judged that their children needed more attention than it was possible to provide them in conjunction with paid employment. I could defend that in a nuanced way that … that would be totally beside the point.

To endlessly nitpick over women’s individual parenting decisions is to turn feminism from a vital liberation movement directed at oppressive systems into another story of women tearing each other down over the ways we find to survive those systems, turning the empowering narrative of choice sharply against all of us. Once she’s decided to be a parent, if it’s an individual woman’s responsibility to pick a tortuously correct path to motherhood, then there is no room left to discuss the responsibility of society—government, employers, partners, community members—to create a safe and supportive world in which to raise children.

The fact that women will inevitably be made to feel as though every choice we make is wrong somehow should not be taken as a sign that women are bad decision-makers. Rather, it’s proof that the system of oppression we face is invested in making that oppression seem natural and justified, rather than manufactured and malicious. Standing by as a Black woman is repeatedly subjected to that treatment over her personal choices does even more harm, as racist caricatures of Black women have been used at every turn to hold back women’s rights and keep us playing some version of the endless game of respectability politics that we always lose: proving that we’re not like that. Open season on Black women needs to be over.

I digress a bit, because I came here to talk about food. But maybe I don’t, because big politics often hides in the cracks of things that are supposed to seem normal, justified, apolitical, or even natural.

What could be more self-evident than how unimportant food is? Especially when women care about it. Women’s concerns are obviously silly, like the children they foolishly care for. Especially Black women, who are even more wrong about everything they ever do than the typical woman, amirite?

It would be hard to come up with a set of underlying assertions more in service to existing power structures. Food is a multi-billion dollar industry and a necessity of life. Women are a bit more than half the human race, and our potential is woefully underdeveloped. Children are, as the lady sang, the future. And the United States has been dining out on the publicly disrespected work of Black women for too long.

As long as human society remains oppressive, hungry, sick, neglectful of children, and grossly unequal, the place of feminism is to criticize the systems that keep it that way and to build up the oppressed, not to endorse this cruel state of affairs as the inevitable order of the world. If a writer can’t bring themselves to be concerned with lofty affairs like the well-being of children and the quality of our food supply, they’re not up to the task of getting to define feminism in the public eye.

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