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.
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.