By Senti Sojwal
At a time when black mothers are noticeably absent from national conversations about parenting, what does it mean when Michelle Obama announces at the Democratic National Convention that, “at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief’”? For some feminists, it means that Obama is confining herself to traditional roles for the purpose of connecting to the American public and presenting herself as an ideal political wife. Founder of feminist blog Feministing and Full Frontal Feminism author Jessica Valenti tweeted: “I long for the day when powerful women don’t need to assure Americans that they’re moms above all else.” In the days after the DNC, similar critiques of Obama’s declaration erupted through the feminist blogosphere, arguing that Obama is downplaying her personal goals and accomplishments in this campaign.
What this discourse fails to examine are the reasons why having an African-American self-identified “mom-in-chief” challenges dominant constructions of black femininity, and is therefore something to be celebrated. Since 2008, the American public, and American women in particular, have embraced Michelle Obama – she is young, stylish, educated, successful, and has been made emblematic of the modern woman. In the attempt to identify with Obama, however, many white feminists have neglected to address her blackness, a key part of her identity, and the ways in which her race affects how she occupies the political space of First Lady. Having a black “mom-in-chief” means that a black woman is being publicly celebrated in a manner rarely seen in our culture.
Historically, white women have been painted as the “ideal femininity”: maternal, beautiful, and demure. In contrast, the constructions of female blackness perpetuated in American media are negative: baby mama, jezebel, sexually promiscuous, unmarriageable. As Michelle Obama is presented as an ideal vision of femininity and maternity when stereotypes of black femaleness are overwhelmingly negative and racist, it raises the question of how much she may need or want to distance herself from “traditional” roles. For black women who have never had an African-American First Lady or “mom-in-chief” to relate to, Obama’s declaration is also a statement of solidarity.
The type of sexism that women experience, though equally harmful, varies in accordance with multiple other facets of identity: race, class, ethnic origin, etc. To assume that all women fight the same battles is to ignore the diversity in the lived experience of being female, and the voices of women of color have been marginalized for too long. Though Michelle Obama’s desire to present herself as a devoted mother clearly connects her to the American public, it also must be acknowledged that this is her choice, and it is a revolutionary one in a society that rarely praises black women.