I’m the resident American here at the Today’s Parent office, but last night my Twitter feed—which has mostly Canadians—was overflowing with collective admiration for Michelle Obama and her electrifying speech.
Here in Ontario, I’m sure more of us tuned in to watch the Democratic National Convention than the coverage of the Quebec election. Sad but true.
Some of the fascination was with her sheer stage presence—those arms! that dress!—but I think we were actually transfixed by what she stands for: she’s a powerful, whip-smart woman and a positive role model for working moms and SAHMs alike. This is a breath of fresh air in politics. While I was a little put off by what seemed like an intentionally folksy stutter, it was hard not to feel the swells of emotion as her speech progressed. She seemed to tear up a little towards the end, and her voice sometimes wavered.
Usually, first ladies (and potential first ladies) are trotted out to speak about their husbands’ personal lives—to humanize them a bit and make them seem more like relatable, lovable family men, not just scheming politicians. Michelle Obama’s speech was no different, saying, “Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.” She talked about his struggles growing up with a single mother and about their early years together. They were young, in love, in debt and balancing busy careers while raising their daughters. The classic narrative of family, hard work and the American Dream permeated the speech.
She dropped in anecdotes that parents across North America can relate to, like this one: “Date night for Barack and me was either dinner or a movie, because as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.” Hilariously, she talked about how the President of the United States helps his girls navigate tricky middle school friendships during family dinner conversations at the White House.
But she also included lines that were just a few words away from feminist slogans (that bit about the personal and the political, anyone?). She talked about women’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies and their own healthcare.
Maybe that’s why about half of the women watching seemed disappointed in her choice of words during her closing remarks. She said that despite everything else she has accomplished, she considers herself “mom-in-chief” first and foremost. There was no mention of the many important jobs she’s held, and the career she sacrificed. It was all about her role as a mother and a wife.
Some of my Twitter friends found this insulting, like she was reducing herself to “only” a wife and a mom, and that little girls listening would think that a woman’s successes are measured only by her family life, not her educational or professional achievements.
But others said her choice to mom-ify herself was purely strategic. Rebecca Traister, a writer for Salon.com tweeted, “She is just shredding Mitt Romney and disguising it in moms and middle school. Very shrewd & fascinating use of a regressive form.”
This morning, I checked my email and found a mom-friendly campaign fundraising message from Michelle in my inbox. It read, “Ariel—I know your life is full—with work, or school, or family—and yet you still find the time to help out when you can. You may have a tight budget, but you give what you can afford. A woman recently told the campaign her family skipped a pizza dinner at their favorite place so that they could make a difference in this election.” And in closing, she wrote, “It meant a lot to me to speak with you and everyone else last night. Thank you for everything you do.” It’s a message that resonates with beleaguered and overwhelmed parents, especially during this hectic first week of school.
So what do you think? Did you feel inspired by Michelle Obama’s speech, and did her remarks about motherhood make her more relatable to you? Or were you disappointed that she emphasized her family role and downplayed her career? Was she simply pandering to the family values crowd, who might not be ready to accept a powerful career woman like Michelle Obama?
For more on this topic, check out Rebecca Traister’s 2008 piece on Salon.com—“The momification of Michelle Obama.”
And Irin Carmon’s Salon.com piece, “Michelle Obama: Not just mom-in-chief” published late last night.