Michelle Obama and My Feminist Nightmare


Those who know me well know that despite the fact that I make most of my living writing about politics, I almost never watch political talk shows, including those on which I sometimes appear. I almost never read comments on pieces that I write or pieces in which I’m mentioned, unless my mother specifically says I absolutely have to.


This is not to say my happy and peaceful life is devoid of constructive criticism, because I always read letters people take the time to send me via my website. I believe any person who takes the time to reach out on a personal level, and sign their full name to a coherent argument that does not involve name-calling, deserves to be taken seriously. I do not feel that way about a lot of the criticism cluttering cyberspace and our political discourse in general—and was reminded of why just before Thanksgiving.

I was recently informed by peers, family members and friends that I had really offended fans of first lady Michelle Obama. Apparently, I had referred to her as a “feminist nightmare.” This was news to me since, well, I hadn’t and never have.

I had, however, been interviewed for an article for Politico magazine on the first lady weeks ago. I was not told the article would be called “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” (I found out later the writer of the article was just as shocked as the rest of us that her editors went with such an incendiary title.) I was told the article was about the first lady and feminism. I consider myself a feminist and had recently written a column urging the first lady to fly her own feminist flag more proudly, so I was happy to participate.

I reiterated in the interview the same criticisms and concerns I had in my column. We have one of the most accomplished, admired—and I do believe I used the term “badass” during the interview (sorry, Mom)—women in history in the White House. I had written previous columns arguing that she is smarter than her husband (still believe it) and would make a better president (sorry, Mr. President). For that reason I have been incredibly frustrated that she has essentially been relegated to a better-dressed impersonation of Laura Bush.

Don’t get me wrong, Bush was a fine first lady. Not extraordinary, but inoffensive and harmless. Just like Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and most other first ladies before her.

Michelle Obama is not most other first ladies.

Did I mention the Harvard Law degree? The fact that she was her family’s breadwinner before her husband’s political career finally took off?


I stand by my quote in Politico that “She is one of the most influential black women on the planet, and I consider it a national shame that she’s not putting the weight of her office behind some of these issues.”

But what did not make it into the piece is that my real gripe is not with Michelle Obama. It is with the fact that we live in a country and a political climate that has terrified and paralyzed the current White House into believing that if a black first lady did want to speak about the AIDS crisis ravaging her community, or mentioned wanting to see a black woman on the Supreme Court, she would be seen as too threatening. Therefore they’d rather play it safe and keep the first lady with the Princeton and Harvard degrees gardening and Hula-Hooping.


That is a national shame. What is also a national shame is that any academic or pundit would pretend that the work the first lady has done so far is the most challenging work of which this Harvard-educated dynamo is capable.

As I said in a previous column and in my interview with Politico (again, this did not make it into the final piece—go figure) when the Obamas took an AIDS test in Africa in 2006 they singlehandedly destigmatized the test, resulting in clinics there being flooded with those seeking to follow their lead. We have a similar AIDS crisis in certain cities in this country, including Washington, D.C., yet the president and first lady have apparently been too busy to destigmatize AIDS tests here.


Clearly they’ve kept the first lady very busy with her really important gardening work and writing about gardening.

But from my vantage point, the most troubling realizations to emerge in the wake of the “feminist nightmare” faux controversy are as follows:

1. Most people don’t read articles online anymore. Period. They read the title. And they believe that is enough on which to base an argument. No wonder the U.S. is rapidly losing its place as a superpower. For the record, while the title of the Politico piece is certainly controversial, the premise of the piece is not. Furthermore, to reiterate, not only did I not have anything to do with the “Feminist Nightmare” title, neither did the article’s author, Michelle Cottle. She didn’t pick it, nor did she approve of it. Blame her bosses and, well, yourself. Many of you clicked on the piece, talked about it, argued about it and tweeted about it because of the title. How do I know? Because I’ve previously made the same arguments in columns without that title and don’t recall any of you weighing in on those. Which brings me to No. 2 …


2. It is troubling that minority publications are so devalued in the political and media world. I’ve published multiple columns on Michelle Obama on The Root reiterating the same arguments that are in the Politico piece and received nary a peep from anyone. But apparently because the arguments were published in Politico they became worthy of mainstream debate. Good to know if you are minority writer and want to be taken seriously by mainstream media (and apparently high-level supporters of the Obama administration) you need a white writer at a white publication to make the case for you.

3. It is also troubling that apparently most media outlets are no longer interested in legitimate debate. It was brought to my attention this weekend that a number of progressive publications and television shows framed the Politico piece as a bunch of white feminists attacking the first lady. First off, legitimate criticism is not an attack. Second, I don’t know how bad some of these people’s eyesight is, but I’m not white.


Last, I would have been happy to debate the arguments I laid out in this piece and all of my previous pieces on this topic. Strangely, the networks and television shows that tackled this subject didn’t bother to invite me on.

I guess that would have debunked the myth that the only people who criticize the Obamas in any way, shape or form are angry white racists or angry white feminists.


I’m not angry. I’m not white. I’m not racist. But I am a feminist, and as such I want to see the first lady live up to the potential all of us know that she has.

But she can only do that if the White House will stop playing it safe and let her.


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter