Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Michelle Obama's Speech. A Feminist Look.

She spoke very well and her speech achieved the various goals pundits tell me a candidate's wife's speech has:  to humanize the candidate, to relate the love story of the couple and to inject into this human and emotional message as many subtle links to the policies of the candidate's party as possible.

Michelle Obama's speech was even cleverer than that because she managed to contrast her messages with those of the Republican candidate and his wife.  And yes, she looked fantastic and her dress was great and so on.

It would be better if Barack just resigned tomorrow and president Michelle Obama took over!  Michelle won the War of the Wives.

The above paragraphs are my summary of what I have learned about the general political opinions on this matter.   I agree with them, of course.  Michelle Obama is a great speaker, a beautiful woman and very intelligent.

But here's the reason why I can cheer as wildly as all those folks at the Democratic Convention one moment and go a bit sulky the next moment:  I need a feminism-ectomy!  Also:

Speeches by spouses are one of the many aspects of American electoral politics that puzzle the rest of the world. As a reporter from VG (The Way of the World), the largest newspaper in Norway, was heard to ask, "What do these women do that their men can't?"

In many western European contests, the voting public doesn't even know the names of the candidates' families -- but that's never been true in America. From the first, presidents' wives have been the focus of the public eye, much to the chagrin of Martha Washington, who never wanted her husband to be the leader of the new republic. Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, John Adams, had no time for "the people" and their curiosity about the family that led the nation. It would not be until Dolley Madison became the figurehead for her reticent and uncharismatic husband, James, that a new role for the first lady was born.

That's the way I grew up.  Having wives of candidates take the podium to discuss the candidates as husbands and fathers still sounds very weird to me.

But it's that feminism-ectomy need that truly bothers me.  I don't want to pee on the parade, I don't want to be a fanatic single-issue goddess and I don't want to be a curmudgeon.  I also understand that the role of the political spouse is but one role for women in politics, that women also give speeches as candidates on their own right, and I very much understand the specific trials and tribulations a woman of color would face in the role of the First First Lady of Color, what with various racist stereotypes about black women, in particular.  I don't blame Michelle Obama for the only track she can really take.  Besides, her speech did much more than that requisite get-to-know-my-husband.

Still.  The role of the First Lady does not translate into the role of the First Husband, and that's where the feminist problem with this tradition lies. 

Suppose that the roles were indeed reversed between the two Obamas (as courteous commentators suggest).  Would the First Gentleman, Barack Obama, then give a speech which would end in his vow that his most important role is to be Dad-in-Chief?  Michelle finished with the female equivalent, after all:

And I say all of this tonight not just as first lady.and not just as a wife.
You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still “mom in chief.”

And would the viewers of that imaginary speech then discuss Barack's clothing and shoes and handsomeness?

My point is that this stuff does not translate, which means that the institution of the First Lady and all the baggage that comes with it is an essentially female one.  

And this is why the role of the First Lady cannot be the role of the First Gentleman.

That is a minor obstacle in the road of female politicians to the highest office in the country, the absent script for the role of the First Spouse.  Other obstacles are much more severe.  Perhaps the best way for me to look at my small sulks is to accept the times we live in.

Now that I got that off my chest,  let me point out that Michelle Obama works that difficult, ill-defined and unpaid job of a First Lady very well.   My grumbling is not about her (or about the earlier First Ladies, either) but about the expectations attached to that role.