The End of Feminism As We Know It?
Michelle Obama so embodies feminist goals that she surpasses them.
Michelle Obama is setting a new standard for feminism. She so embodies feminist goals that she surpasses them. How will white feminists deal with that?
There were several unforgettable moments in the Obama campaign—Barack's impassioned speech about race, the DNC finale at Invesco, Madelyn Dunham's death just before her grandson became president-elect—but none meant more to me than a two-minute bit of tape, a simple but monumental exchange between Michelle Obama and Soledad O'Brien.
In her interview with Michelle, Soledad circled around the issues placed at the center of every discussion about female identity by second-wave feminism. O'Brien wondered how Michelle felt about following a dream that wasn't hers. She asked about leaving a "high-powered and highly compensated" career.
Michelle acknowledged the challenges. She graciously offered that she missed her colleagues and her work. But, she continued, she could always find another career. With only the slightest hint of irony, she said if she had more time, she might bemoan the loss, but she "had a lot on her plate" and what she was doing was "pretty significant."
I thought, "You go, girl!" As if working with the love of her life and the father of her children to become the first family of the United States while radically transforming the world as we know it isn't the most empowering choice a brilliant and self-determining woman could make.
But the real moment came in the next beat, 30 seconds that remain forever etched in my mind as the final blow to an ideology in which women's empowerment is narrowly defined by financial independence, emotional autonomy and professional advancement.
O'Brien went in for the kill, the coup de grâce of second-wave feminism. "But sometimes your career helps to define who you are," she said, probing.
"It doesn't for me," Michelle said immediately. "What I do in my life defines me. A career is one of the many things I do in my life. I am a mother first. Where do I get my joy and my energy first and foremost? From my kids."
As a mother, I understood the second half of what Michelle said. But as a woman, as a human being, it was the first part of her answer that I realized I—and the rest of the world—needed and still need to hear. What I do in my life defines me. Not my career, not money, not awards or accolades, but the whole thing, the sum of all of the parts. My life.
You know, life? The one that includes showing up and embracing all of it: financial pressure and anniversary dinners, security details and ballet recitals, demeaning attacks and uplifting stump speeches, grueling late-night conversations and awesome feats of self-sacrifice, tidal waves of overwhelming satisfaction and grim truths of mistakes made and opportunities lost.
The hungry kids and the empty gas tank, the deadline, the Pilates class, the Apple store, the "Shit, I have got to go get my hair handled, today!" The showing up for the people you love no matter what. The growing confidence in the decisions you made. The wonder at the way your life is unfolding.
In that life, the one that isn't defined by ideology or obligation, openness is the guiding principle. You keep your eye on cherishing your partnership and protecting your family. You keep your mind sharp and your soul deep. And, if you are Michelle Obama, you do it all in a fabulous red dress with your good-looking husband and well-educated children by your side.
Michelle Obama embodies feminist goals, and in her determination to live in sync with a vision larger than her gender and individual ego, she surpasses them. This is no time or place to be paralyzed by dogma. She cannot lie in bed and wonder if her choices are feminist enough or whether they send the correct message to women around the world. She can accept her role at the center of history and rely on her aspiration to be her best self to transcend narrow categories of feminist identity and, in doing so, inspire others to the same.
In other words, Michelle Obama doesn't need a message. She is the message.
But there is even more to this story. For the last 30 years feminist discourse has struggled to be inclusive of the perspectives of women of color, to honor "the way we do things." At the heart of feminism's slippery promise of diversity lay its white centrism, its monopoly by women over 50, its de facto placement of the rest of us in the margins.
The rise of Michelle Obama challenges that centrism by following in the footsteps of female intellectuals and women of conscience like Anna Julia Cooper, who fought on behalf of women and all those who were oppressed. "The cause of freedom," Cooper wrote, "is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity."
Unlike the leaders for suffrage who abandoned the cause of women of color in order to get the vote, women of color have historically refused to abandon any part of themselves or their community in the name of political expediency. All must be saved or none.
My sense is that Michelle Obama's scope and influence will be equally broad. When she voices her concerns, she mentions "working folks," "a balance of work and family for women" and military families left out in the cold.
Michelle offers a possibility for change, a new kind of female leadership. And this, my friends, is a major turn of events. The wild card, of course, will be the response of those currently at the center of the women's movement, who will no doubt find themselves displaced, pushed more into the margin than ever before. How will second-wave feminism find relevance when a devoted partner, full-time mother and credentialed black powerhouse becomes first lady, and doesn't feel victimized by the job?
But that will be for them to wrestle with. Not Michelle.
Rebecca Walker is author of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence. She is a regular contributor to The Root.