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Real Talk: Stop Making Michelle Obama Your Feminist Leader

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2013 Presidential Inauguration
Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Shortly after I began penning this column in June 2011, I wrote a somewhat controversial post, “Struggling to Claim the F-Word,” in which I distanced myself from being called a ‘feminist.’ “Do I believe in equality, equal pay, equal rights for everyone, including men? Yes,” I wrote. “But to say, 'Yes, I am the F-word!' Just feels... like a burden I'm not ready to bear.”

More than a year later, I’m probably farther away from claiming the title than ever before. Feminism, at its core, is a great and empowering purpose. But a vocal minority among the group are making all feminists look bad. Here’s a recent example: a story in the Washington Post last week headlined “Four years later, feminists split by Michelle Obama’s ‘work’ as a First Lady.” (The quotations around work, as if it’s debatable whether Mrs. Obama does any, are the original publication’s and not my own.)

The first half of Lonnae O’Neal Parker’s piece considers Mrs. O’s “strange but considerable” power in the White House where some feminist women accuse FLOTUS of “letting down the team" by "not working" and scoff at her self-described primary duty of “Mom-in-Chief,” a sort of Captain America Mom where no child leaves the table without eating their vegetables. Mrs. O, these feminists lamented, is no Hillary Clinton.

I really adore Mrs. Clinton, whose career trajectory, including her current role as Secretary of State, is a series of boss moves. But I don’t understand why the two women need to be pitted against each other—how unfeminist is that? Or why the First Lady needs to follow in a predecessor’s footsteps to be thought of as great. And, for what it’s worth, lots of people think she is. Mrs. O—arms toned like a superhero and rescuing kids from obesity one workout at a time—has managed an astronomical 73 percent approval rating.

I suppose it’s because FLOTUS is uber-educated with degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School that she’s expected to tackle so-called ‘more important’ fare than the health of Americans' beautiful little kids, helping military families cope or tackling the fate of even her own brown girls, who were uprooted from their hometown and are being raised in a media circus. For some, I guess, it might seem like a waste to well, waste, all those smarts on issues so unworthy. Nothing in a woman’s life should ever take precedence over climbing a career ladder, right?

Fortunately, the second half of Parker’s article, tackles the perception from the other (and melanin-infused) side of feminism, one that paints Mrs. O for the revolutionary that she is. Not just for being the first Black First Lady, but for being a rare Black woman who doesn’t feel compelled to do it all (and all the time too). Sure FLOTUS could have swooped into Washington in Olivia Pope's power ensembles to tackle policy, and she would have been great at it, undoubtedly. But it would have been a career that she had to balance in addition to her duties as First Lady—a full-time job on its own—and the Second Shift of raising her children—another full-time job. Is it really so bad for Mrs. O to lay a burden down and choose family and what looks like a whole lot of fun over trying to prove herself in a new arena? It’s like it’s never occurred to some feminists that after years of toiling in corporate America—yes, toiling because I know lots of people in it and very few who like what they do as much as they like the check, the access and the power trip—Mrs. O might just have wanted a break from that sort of madness, especially since she was taking on another dimension of it becoming, you know, the First Lady of the United States. 

When we see Mrs. O., she looks happy standing beside her man, digging in her garden, and loving her well, lovable children. It’s not like she’s chilling in the White House with her feet up—which I also wouldn’t object to—she’s always on the move, advocating something or another and looking like she’s having a ball. Maybe “just” being happy and having fun isn’t feminist enough, but I’ll take however Mrs.O is living over how some feminists expect her to.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk

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