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How Michelle Obama expanded the definition of a First Lady

The rules imposed on her were constricting. So she expanded them and, in the process, won people over without betraying herself

Margo Jefferson: The Guardian – January 6, 2017


When Michelle Obama entered the White House, she had to contend with two onerous legacies. The first was a stale clutter of expectations and prohibitions about the proper role of the first lady. The second was a cluster of stereotypes deeming black women unfit for any such role.

A first lady was expected to display gracious manners, wear tasteful clothes and support worthy, uncontroversial causes. Whatever was hers alone – education, expertise, passion – had to be adapted to the needs of her husband’s presidency. She was there to please and enhance. A black woman, by contrast, was the opposite of that. Or that is, at least, what we’d always been told.

People were busily projecting negative stereotypes onto Michelle Obama from the moment her husband began campaigning. She was pushy and sullen. She didn’t smile enough. She undercut her husband’s extraordinary tact and diplomacy by airing her reservations about his running for office. And how dare she say out loud that she’d spent most of her adult life not being proud of her country?

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When Barack Obama won, her mandate as first lady was to win people over without betraying herself. And I wasn’t alone in worrying that she was too cautious and conciliatory at first. She called herself “mom-in chief”, applied herself to children’s health and the needs of military families. Appropriate womanly interests.

I know you have to reassure much of the white public, I thought, but don’t pander; don’t tamp yourself down. And in fact, she didn’t. She took more, not fewer risks. In hindsight that “mom-in-chief” looks clever, even cheeky. She got rid of “lady”, which is too genteel. She turned “mother” – so formal and pious – into the more informal “mom”. Then claimed authority by seizing hold of “chief”.

She reminded people of all the women – moms and otherwise – who work hard and efficiently every day wherever their work takes them. She was taking both legacies and divesting them of their constriction so as to compose and improvise a new model.

Now she’s thrown herself into the Let Girls Learn initiative. That “let” is a demand, not a plea. Let young girls learn in school. Let them learn to in villages and cities, on streets and in refugee camps. Let them learn to fight back and believe they’ll win when they’re attacked, objectified and manipulated.

Michelle Robinson was born in 1964 to sturdy, forward-looking people whose southern parents had made their way to Chicago during the great migration. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law the year of her birth. Title IX (The Equal Opportunity in Education Act) was passed in 1972. Abortion was legalized in 1973. Girls of her generation grew up seeing laws correct centuries of employment discrimination against women and minorities. All of this helped give her what feels like a real sense of wholeness.

What do I mean by this sense of wholeness? I mean that whatever she does – from joking with Ellen DeGeneres, singing with Mary J Blige, calling out Donald Trump – she does with her whole self. There’s no hidden agenda, no psychological subtext at odds with her words and gestures. No sense that she’s compensating for what she fears from the public or from within herself.

She likes her body; she knows it’s a good body, but nothing suggests that she’s unduly anxious about how we judge it. She’s antic, with spot-on comic timing. Her voice has a smooth timbre and she speaks directly: no grandiloquent rhetoric.

She says “yeah” in one-on-one conversation and sets up a point she feels strongly about with “see”. She doesn’t overdo the dropped G’s. She code-switches all the time; thoughtful spokeswoman, glamorous hostess, cool and funny black girl. But the effect is to expand our range of discourse, not to please separate constituencies.

Most of all, she says – declares, confesses – in public what most of us say only to people we trust in safe settings. I was overwhelmed by her October denunciation of Trump’s sexual assaults on women. Her voice trembled at points, from conviction, not weakness. “I can’t stop thinking about this,” she said. “It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted …

“The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our ambitions and intellect, the belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It is frightening. And the truth is it hurts. It hurts.” She gave us the space to feel all of that and admit it. To feel vulnerable as well as outraged. Speaking truth to power depends on speaking truth about how power wounds the psyche. Only then are you truly prepared to fight.

Trump’s victory is cruel, it is frightening and it hurts. “Now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like”, she told Oprah Winfrey in December. Yes, she was pointedly reminding us of her husband’s legacy. But she was also refusing to hide behind the mask of above-it-all dignity and statecraft.

She is devastated, she knows how many of us are devastated too and, as her grim tone made clear, she knows that, sooner than they think, people who don’t expect it will find themselves devastated and betrayed, too.



Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer prize-winning cultural critic and the author of Negroland

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