Traditional first ladies such as Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, and potentially, Cindy McCain, have established a standard: demure in public, but influential behind the scenes.
Hillary Clinton changed that. We went from the matronly Barbara Bush to the Baby Boomer, well-educated, out-spoken Hillary Clinton. And Americans struggled with how they felt about Hillary during both terms of the Clinton presidency. Americans are still struggling now with how they feel about her. The Clinton presidency was the first generational shift Americans had seen in the White House since JFK in 1960.
Michelle Obama is ushering in yet another shift, one that involves both race and gender. And that is the challenge. She is a black woman. Black women in the popular culture are viewed as too strong, too independent, too opinionated, too over-bearing, not great team players, and on an on.
This why an Obama presidency with Michelle Obama as our first lady is such a powerful idea. She has the potential to reset the image of black women in America for generations. She will have an opportunity to redefine the role of first lady, and to redefine what a black woman, and black families, look like in the public mind.
I want a first lady who – regardless of her race – will not simply sit silently and look adoringly at her husband as he speaks, but one who has the ability to bring her own intellect and accomplishments to the table. Cindy McCain seems to have figured out that many Americans want this. She was right to come out fighting. She should speak her mind. And Michelle Obama should, too.
Sophia Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.