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Becoming Michelle Obama

Wife, Mother, Lawyer, First Lady

In her memoir Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama recalls her childhood fascination with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore’s character represented the “hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest” of a liberated working woman who did not let her supervisors boss her around.[1] Yet, Obama remembers feeling conflicted by this urge as she simultaneously yearned for a traditional family life, claiming that the “stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother” might not coincide with her ambitious career goals.[2] Perhaps unexpectedly, this tension is a touchstone in her book, where much of her life experience is shaped by the desire to be successful in both her career and as a mother. Having been positively influenced by her own mother’s support growing up, Obama uses motherhood to drive her life’s focus, as she succinctly states, “motherhood became my motivator.”[3]

It is probably no surprise, then, that Becoming has already sold more than 10 million copies and is slated to become one of the bestselling memoirs of all time.[4] Women of all ages and backgrounds no doubt share these same internal conflicts of trying to balance a life inside and outside the home. When The Feminine Mystique became a bestseller in 1964—the year of Michelle Obama’s birth—Betty Friedan had pinpointed “the problem that has no name,” saying that there was “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning” that plagued American women who wanted to be more than simply a wife and mother.[5] Taking a cue from a childhood piano lesson, Obama learned early on to ground herself and find balance in all things, remembering her first maxim to “find middle C.”[6]

Obama thus attempts to make her story one that most women can personally connect to, as evidenced by the fact that almost every review of the book describes her as “extraordinarily relatable” and “down to earth.”[7] But there is a clear ideological motivation for this approach. Besides attempting to correct the record regarding her public image as “an angry black woman who didn’t love her country,” the details of Obama’s life reveals one of significant privilege, a reality that cannot resonate with most American women, regardless of race or age.[8] Indeed, the success of Becoming more accurately represents the desperate state of women eager to find a visible public figure for whom they can idolize, giving them a sense that achievement is possible for those who try hard enough. However, most women in America have worked incredibly hard, yet the opportunities afforded to Obama remain unavailable to them. Historically, women have been so oppressed socially and politically that they are impatient for a role model they can call their own. Obama’s attempts to dismiss structural and material realities and instead attribute her success to her own inclination to “overperform” ignores these actualities.[9]

Reading between the lines of Becoming illustrates a larger story of American women—one demonstrating how, for most women, social and economic circumstance must line up in such a way that allows success to be possible in a world that predominately favors the wealthy. In other words, Obama’s story shows how the cards are already stacked against women in the first place, so to be successful requires a collection of built-in advantages—advantages that most women would never have access to regardless of how much they overperform.

The Feminine Mystique and the Ebony Alternative

After World War II, women were encouraged to go back to the domestic sphere so that men could return to their industrial jobs.[10] Even though women had proven capable and even content in the workforce, the government encouraged women to revert back to traditional gender roles, maintaining the “postwar domestic ideal” of being wives and mothers.[11] Advertising played a major role in this effort, and popular women’s magazines featured women as homemakers rather than career women.[12] The prevailing attitude was that women were happiest in the home raising children.

However, the publication of The Feminine Mystique changed this view. Friedan discovered that, contrary to that common attitude, stay-at-home wives and mothers exhibited a profound unhappiness. They abused prescription drugs, they emotionally smothered their children, and Friedan argued that this dissatisfaction took “a greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.”[13]

Yet, African American women remained in the workforce in higher numbers after the war, so they experienced the postwar domestic ideal differently than middle-class white women. While still subject to the same feminine expectations, black women developed a new consciousness about moving up in their careers. Magazines aimed at a black audience, such as Ebony and Jet, still “promoted marriage and motherhood,” but they also showcased the “professional and artistic achievement” of African American women.[14] Historians refer to this phenomenon as the “ebony alternative,” where the way out of domestic entrapment for black women lies in their ability to become visibly successful in professional fields.[15]

The ebony alternative, then, is exemplified in Becoming. As someone who moved quickly from a middle-class upbringing into the elite class—attending both Princeton and Harvard and then becoming a lawyer at a prestigious law firm before becoming a first lady—Obama encapsulates the perfect representation of black success, as evidenced by the fact that African American women have spent thousands of dollars to get a ticket for her speaking tours.[16] In her review of Becoming, professor and cultural critic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes how Obama’s celebrity among black women illustrates “the depths of disrespect and invisibility that black women in the United States experience,” further adding that “black women in this country are so debased and ignored that it often feels as if the success and public adoration of Obama can lift and make visible all black women—a process Obama herself encourages.”[17]

Even though the ebony alternative advanced the visibility of African American women, it did not provide any solutions to the material problems most women faced. In 1963 and 1964, respectively, the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act ensured that discrimination against women in the workplace was prohibited by the law.[18] However, these legislative changes did not solve any structural problems as women still faced sexual harassment and pay disparities. By the 1970s, women desiring to leave the domestic sphere and enter the workforce became a key driver for second-wave feminism, but economic reality played a big part as well.[19] The stagflation of the 1970s (a combination of high unemployment rates, high inflation rates, and stagnating wages) forced women into the workforce whether they wanted to be there or not.[20] Between 1970 and 1980, America saw the largest increases in women’s employment, yet women still made significantly less money than men, and their movement into the workforce was more of a reaction to stagflation rather than the advances of liberation.[21]

The Personal Is Political

“I’ve never been a fan of politics,” Obama writes, “and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”[22] Frequently throughout Becoming, Obama insists that she has no intention of running for public office and that she is “not a political person.”[23] But this assertion is incredibly misleading. Far from being apolitical, Obama is actually highly political, both in her life’s work and the ethos espoused within the book. In her memoir, Obama speaks candidly about many taboo subjects: her first period, her sexual partners, her difficulty getting pregnant, her fights with her husband, and her insecurities being in the public eye. These instances are passed off merely as personal stories, giving insight to her daily life behind closed doors. However, these experiences fit into a larger narrative about race, gender, public policy, and family values that runs throughout the book. The history of women’s liberation is not just one of legislative changes; rather, it includes changes in social norms and attitudes. The second-wave feminists of the 1960s knew this and thrust their personal stories about reproductive health, sexuality, marriage, and sexual harassment into the public sphere, claiming that, indeed, the personal is political.[24]

One of the key political issues Obama addresses in Becoming is racism and violence. She points out the ghettoization of her childhood neighborhood: “When I began kindergarten in 1969, my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago was made up of a racially diverse mix of middle-class families. But as many better-off families moved to the suburbs—a phenomenon commonly known as ‘white flight’—the demographics changed fast. By fifth grade, the diversity was gone.”[25] This white flight not only changed the racial makeup of these areas, but it altered the economic makeup as well. City officials had redirected education funding away from these public schools towards whiter neighborhoods for decades.[26] Concerned about violence among the youth, Obama visited Harper High School in the Englewood neighborhood. During her visit, she attempts to sway the concerned kids away from gun violence, but her efforts were boldly confronted by one student: “It’s nice that you’re here and all, but what’re you actually going to do about it?”[27] Obama hedged, telling them simply to “use school.”[28] She continues to explain to them that the immediate solution to their woes lies in their “persistence, self-reliance, and ability to overcome.”[29]

This anecdote illustrates Obama’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that permeates the book. Rather than addressing the institutional and structural issues that affect women, minorities, and the impoverished, Obama prescribes a kind of individualist moralizing, suggesting that the issues faced by women and African Americans can be overcome with enough persistence and dedication rather than uprooting the actual capitalist and patriarchal systems of oppression that keep them down.

It quickly becomes evident that Obama rehashes the same kind of respectability politics that Reaganites championed in the 1980s. Rather than confront racism and sexism at their roots, the Obamas leaned on their mantra: “When they go low, we go high.”[30] But this position is a profoundly conservative one. In fact, Obama’s politics echo those of the conservative backlash against feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Take, for instance, the positions held by Phyllis Schlafly. In her book The Power of the Positive Woman, Schlafly argues that the women’s liberation movement makes women victims of circumstance. Instead, she suggests that “the Positive Woman…will never be crushed by life’s disappointments because her positive mental attitude has built her an inner security that the actions of other people can never fracture” and that the oppression women face is merely “a challenge to her character and her capabilities.”[31] Schlafly continues to say that “fulfillment as a woman is a journey, not a destination”—an argument that aligns well with Obama’s ultimate thesis: “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”[32]

Apolitical How? Relatable to Whom?

Obama recalls a moment when she was hanging out with one of her best friends, Santita Jackson, Jesse Jackson’s daughter. Because of Santita’s father’s fame, Obama remembers feeling that there was an expectation to be politically involved, but the girls preferred a typical teenage experience: “She and I were all for strengthening the character of black youth across America, but we also needed rather desperately to get to Water Tower Place before the K-Swiss sneaker sale ended.”[33]

This story captures how Obama emphasizes her relatability throughout Becoming as a way of trying to connect with women everywhere. However, despite her insistence that she is not political, Obama’s life has been saturated by politics. Even at a young age, she was surrounded by political figures, and she became involved in political organizations in college well before becoming a lawyer and then a first lady. Obama mentions working for the Third World Center at Princeton, a group whose aim was to help minority and international students.[34] This fact makes one wonder how she felt about her husband Barak Obama’s policies on immigration during his presidency. Considering that President Obama deported 1.18 million people, more than any other president, including Donald Trump (to date), it seems unfathomable that Michelle Obama would be unaware or uninterested in this topic.[35] She also started a “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign in 2014, demanding the return of over 200 captured Nigerian girls, but the movement garnered hefty criticism when the promotional images were changed to reflect President Obama’s drone strike record that killed thousands of people as a result of American imperialism, another topic to which she remained silent.[36] And recently, she expressed to the press why she is so chummy with former President George W. Bush, saying, “Our values are the same. We disagree on policy but we don’t disagree on humanity. We don’t disagree about love and compassion.”[37] The vagueness of this statement is, of course, a purposeful way to glaze over how similar their politics actually are. Assuming that Obama is an intelligent person who knows what is going on in her orbit, her insistence that she’s “not a political person” is clearly intentional and downright dishonest.

Michelle Obama’s attempts to be relatable and to portray herself as apolitical throughout her memoir is a purposeful way to obscure her privilege and promote a conservative, capitalist ideology: that women can be successful through strength of character rather than uprooting the systemic realities that actually affect them. Becoming is thus a political tactic in itself. She has to make her story seem relatable—even though practically no average woman could possibly relate to a multi-millionaire with extreme political power—because she does not want to actually challenge the system. Instead, she tries to turn a lifetime of privilege into a story of individual triumph. The history of American women is one of acutely embedded structural realities that cannot be undone through perseverance alone. Instead, progress for women is only possible through collective action that dismantles the deeply-rooted systems of oppression that have plagued American women since the country’s founding—systems that Michelle Obama willfully ignores in her book and is clearly fine upholding. If any lesson is to be had from Becoming, it is that women should not be distracted by celebrity power politics, but instead, they should return to a program of radical liberation and not conciliate to capitalism and imperialism.

Notes

1. Michelle Obama, Becoming (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 172.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 191.

4. Stephanie Merry, “Michelle Obama’s Becoming Could Become the Best-Selling Memoir Ever,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2019.

5. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1963), 15.

6. Obama, Becoming, 9.

7. Clodagh Harrington, “Michelle Obama’s Becoming Is an Insight into Inequality, Feminism and a FLOTUS Who Broke the Mold,” The Conversation, November 13, 2018.

8. Obama, Becoming, 406.

9. Ibid., 79.

10. Ruth Milkman, “Gender at Work: The Sexual Division of Labor During World War II,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, ed. Linda K. Kerber, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 541.

11. Ibid., 542. Also referenced in Katherine Jellison, “Women in Cold War America,” lecture, March 29, 2019.

12. Jellison, “Women in Cold War America,” lecture.

13. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. 439.

14. Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, “The Women’s Liberation Movement,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, ed. Linda K. Kerber, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 708.

15. Jellison, “Women in Cold War America,” lecture. See also: Jacqueline Jones, “An Ebony Alternative to the White Feminine Mystique,” in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present, ed. Jacqueline Jones (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 221–227; Megan E. Williams, “‘Meet the Real Lena Horne’: Representations of Lena Horne in Ebony Magazine, 1945–1949,” Journal of American Studies, 43, no. 1 (2009): 117–130.

16. Judy Kurtz, “Michelle Obama Book Tour Fetching Steep Ticket Prices,” The Hill, September 21, 2018.

17. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Succeeding While Black,” Boston Review, March 13, 2019.

18. Katherine Jellison, “Second Wave Feminism,” lecture, April 12, 2019.

19. Ibid.

20. Thomas Borstelmann, The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 54–56; George Guilder, “Women in the Work Force,” The Atlantic, September 1986.

21. “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2017.

22. Obama, Becoming, 419.

23. Ibid., 411.

24. Jellison, “Second Wave Feminism,” lecture. For more on the concept that “the personal is political,” see: Casey Hayden and Mary King, “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo,” in Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, ed. Mary Elizabeth King (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 571–574; Carol Hanisch, “The Personal Is Political: The Women’s Liberation Movement,” in Notes from the Second Year: Major Writings of the Radical Feminists, ed. Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt (New York: Radical Feminism, 1970), 76–78. See generally: Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (London: Persephone Press, 1981), passim.

25. Obama, Becoming, 240–241.

26. Eve L. Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), passim.

27. Obama, Becoming, 386–387.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., 407.

31. Phyllis Schlafly, The Power of the Positive Woman (New Rochelle: Arlington House Publishers, 1977), 101.

32. Ibid.; Obama, Becoming, 419.

33. Obama, Becoming, 63.

34. This club has now been renamed to the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding.

35. Zach Budryk, “Deportations Lower Under Trump Administration Than Obama,” The Hill, November 18, 2019.

36. Terrence McCoy, “Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls Picture Sparks Criticism of American Drone Strikes,” The Washington Post, May 15, 2014; Jack Serle, “More Than 2,400 Dead as Obama’s Drone Campaign Marks Five Years,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, January 23 2014.

37. Cydney Henderson, “Michelle Obama Defends Friendship with George W. Bush,” USA Today, December 11, 2019.

Shalon van Tine is a cultural historian who specializes in American and world history. You can visit her website at https://www.shalonvantine.com/.

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