American historian Catherine Allgor recently explained on National Public Radio that candidate wives’ fashions symbolize the kind of president their husbands aim to be. As convoluted as that sounds, after seeing Michelle Obama’s outfits over the past 18 months, I believe Professor Allgor is dead right.
Michelle—or rather, her clothes—worked overtime to reassure white voters, suspicious of a multi-ethnic candidate, that we could trust her husband. When she showed up at a rally wearing a Talbots sheath dress, white voters, consciously or not, nodded in relief. A cheer went up seven days before the election when she announced to Jay Leno‘s studio audience that she’d bought her yellow twin set at J. Crew, an icon of “classic” style (read: white) for 25 years. “See? She’s black, but she wears clothes just like ours. We can trust her!”
Or, as white newscaster Susan Roesgen said on CNN, “There is something reassuringly normal about seeing the future first lady leaving a PTA meeting in a track suit.” Versus, what, um, seeing the future first lady wearing an African print kaftan, pumping her fist with black pride?
This is nonsense, of course. Professional working moms all basically wear the same gear. But the symbolism explains why Michelle Obama wears so darn many matching sweater sets, the whitest, WASPy-est outfit on the planet. It’s also why she rarely mentions her Princeton or Harvard Law School degrees; why she talks so often about her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7; and why she quit her impressive, well-paid job in May 2007, just before Mother’s Day (nice symbolism here, too). Like her clothes, Michelle Obama’s highly publicized decision to leave work to support her husband struck me as code for she’s just like us. White us, that is. Or at least, just like the stay-at-home mom stereotypes white America idolizes on television, in magazines and at PTA meetings across the country.
White America demands that candidates’ spouses be nonthreatening, deferential, attractive—and stay-at-home moms. Remember Howard Dean’s wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean and Hillary Rodham Clinton? As candidates’ wives, they were vilified for a lifelong commitment to their work. If Obama had continued working, she would have faced subtle and unsubtle attacks by the Republican Party and the media. Bad mom, unsupportive wife, possibly a subversive radical or something far worse…a feminist.
It’s not that Michelle Obama has been deceptive—a presidential campaign is like a national consumer product launch backed by a $200 million marketing budget. Obama had to aim for a stereotype, an idealized symbol of white American motherhood, something like ’50s TV icons Donna Reed or June Cleaver, in order to appeal to white voters. Remember her speech at the Democratic National Convention, the turquoise dress, the girls at her side afterward, talking to daddy via satellite?
Appealing to voters’ psyches displays the social intelligence and marketing savvy befitting an accomplished woman such as Michelle Obama. The same tactic has been employed by legions of women and men trying to assimilate in corporate American businesses, law firms and political campaigns. Using cute outfits to combat racial prejudice is a victimless manipulation. So no biggie, although I look forward to the day when women of all colors can dress with less restraint, like Michelle finally did on Election Night.
Far more nefarious are the gleeful sound bites proclaiming that Michelle Obama has tossed off her working-mama pride like a hair shirt, to be a very grateful stay-at-home mom. Snarky mainstream headlines about her “mom first” values twist the guilt knife into the 80 million black, white, Latina, Asian and multiracial moms in America who have to work: “Mom First, Political Wife Second,” “Michelle’s Main Job: First Mom” or “First Lady or First Mom?” And then there are Michelle Obama’s own self-effacing words in U.S. News and World Report: “Even as first lady, my No. 1 job would still be Mom.”
Why do American media seem to rejoice when women, especially powerful, brainy, brilliantly educated women like Michelle, declare how fulfilled we are quitting work to “put our kids first”? Most parents juggle work and kids, sometimes prioritizing one or the other, depending on the day’s demands. I don’t know any moms, working or at-home, who don’t put their kids first. Heaven forbid we hear a woman speak the truth: “Part of putting my kids first means providing economically for them—my family is proud and grateful that I have a good job.”