Wednesday, January 8, 2014

At the Cross-Section of Feminism, Race and Motherhood

I consider myself a feminist.  I am definitely a mother, and if you saw me in person, you would say that i'm African-American.  So I think that gives me a springboard for the aforementioned title and corresponding piece that follows.
So I was perusing various websites for my daily news dose for work, and happened upon a title that gave me pause.  The story was from Salon and the title was called Leaning Out* (i'll leave out the rest and explain later) by Michelle Cottle.  It was on Michelle Obama's seeming un-interest in "true" feminist issues like policy and advocating for women's rights, abortion rights and the like.  The author seemed genuinely frustrated that Michelle O. was not Hillary Clinton Redux.  That Michelle Obama was educated (ivy league at that!) a lawyer (she was the breadwinner before Barack, I mean come on now Michelle?!) and quite possibly more equipped to handle the position of potus better than Barack (did you see the eye roll to Boehner? #bawse) left some to think that akin to he-man Barack coming to turnaround every single issue plaguing the US during the great recession, she was his she-ra for women's rights.
Let me first remind everyone that this is not the Clinton Presidency.  Barack is not Bill and Michelle is not Hillary.  THEY. ARE. DIFFERENT. PEOPLE.  So please stop assuming that Michelle will tackle the same issues as Hillary.  Just stop.

Now, let's talk about race in the feminist spectrum.  I've always believed in the equality of women, the right for women's equality in politics, corporate America, voting, and reproductive rights.  I believe if you ask a majority of women in the US, whether they believe in these principles, they would say yes.  Well guess what?  That would mean a majority of women in the US are feminists.  So how come only a select few identify with the title?

The more "feminist" articles I read, the more I understand that to be a Feminist, you have to be approved by the feminist club.  What is the feminist club you say?  A collective of self-identified women who dictate what you should do, how you should do it, and when you should do it.  And if you don't?  They get mad and kick you out before you even had a chance to put one toe in the door.  They call you a bunch of names, and tell you that you aren't like them, and what you think/believe/are doing is wrong.  It kinda sounds like what the women's suffrage was fighting against.

We would all like to transcend past Michelle Obama's race and believe that we can talk about only feminist issues without having to slug around the racial aspect.  But to ignore this fundamental aspect of her being is to pretend that she is not a person.  Class oppression as well as race are bound to African American women in addition to sexism in the fight for women's rights.  We fight all fronts equally, you can't ignore one as you talk about the other.  So if she wants to fight childhood obesity?  Guess what?  In addition to possibly curbing bulimia and anorexia and promoting a healthier body image, she is ensuring that those who participate in the school lunch program (which African American children overwhelmingly participate in) receive better, healthier options for their meals, evening the playing field for kids whose parents fix their healthy lunches each day.  When she fights for military families (another sect where sometimes low-income, young, non-college trained african-americans will detour), is she not fighting for equality for women as well?  Or, is there a ban on women in the military that I have not seen?

Never mind that Michelle is a mother to two young (well, not so much anymore) daughters who probably require her attention.  Please remember that her husband is the PRESIDENT during a recession.  We would all like to believe that he's every bit the doting dad, but Michelle gives little hints to Barack's attentiveness on the home front.  Ever read Audacity of Hope?  Yeah, give it a little gander.  The part where Barack talks about Michelle's "resistance" to him going into public office because of the fact that it would require him to be home less?  I doubt he was talking about a small argument here or there.  She is a co-parent for her daughters, and when one person's job requires them to be working for the good of the country, (including women!) then it's the other co-parent's responsibility to take care of the home, including caring for the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their children.  Does it suck for feminists for her to be the person primarily in that role? of course.  But it doesn't hurt the feminist model, nor does it destroy the very fabric of the feminist manifesto.  Michelle made a "choice" to focus her time as the first lady to make changes that affect everyone, and to be the primary parent while her husband runs the country.  Let me remind the collective community that we would do a triple-take if Barack all of a sudden decided to neglect the duties of the White House to spend more time with his children.
And please don't give the, "but she has nannies and secret service and her mom to take care of her kids"  defense.  There are many negative statistics regarding the mental and emotional well being of children who grow up with absentee parents.
I can't begin to fathom the politics behind Michelle's many decisions.  But I can say that as a feminist, as an African-American and as a mother, I understand her need to show her daughters that as a wife you can support your husband and still be passionate about your own causes.  As a feminist and African American, you can still show attentiveness to their needs while fighting for the causes of the greater community, and as a mother, her first priority is them.

*Michelle Cottle has said that the incendiary post-title: "How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare" was not her idea, but the idea of her editors.  She did not know that her piece was going to be titled that.  While I'll give her a break on the title, the fact remains that the piece, detailed how disappointed she and other feminists were at Michelle not being more of an advocate for women's rights during her time as First Lady.

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