First Lady is a feminist fighter

2011-06-18 14:56

I was among more than 1?500 people who braved the 38°C heat in Washington last Thursday afternoon to hear what Michelle Obama had to say about work-family issues and other matters close to women’s hearts.

The occasion was, officially, the 40th anniversary of the National Partnership for Women and Families – a major player in healthcare, paid leave and workplace-flexibility advocacy.

But the event felt more like a rock concert than a fundraiser when the First Lady took to the stage, dressed in hot pink and bangles.

The audience immediately stood, we all craned our necks to catch sight of the woman who is to many a feminist megastar. The eruption of adulation in the giant ballroom brought a tear to my eyes.

Michelle spoke warmly and respectfully of the women’s movement. Referring to 1971, when she was just seven and the National Partnership was founded, she noted: “The ceiling wasn’t just glass back then, it was more like concrete.”

She lamented the fact that Richard Nixon had no women in his cabinet, and praised a law against pregnancy discrimination that was passed in 1978.

But it was more than what came out of her mouth that gave them the impression that Michelle Obama is the First Feminist.

She exuded the confidence of a woman who feels secure in – and beyond – her place of power. She seemed to embody a notion at the centre of feminism: that women can be not just intelligent and powerful, but at ease with that too.

Admittedly, my perception of the First Lady partially comes from filling in the blanks, of which there are many.

In this polarised political moment, there are clearly many topics she has been advised to avoid, such as a pro-choice approach to women’s healthcare or the provision of relief on the work/family front.

Rumour has it that in the early days of her husband’s administration, Michelle planned to take on the work/family balance – including affordable childcare and mandated, paid sick leave – as her big issue.

But childhood obesity won out, and Michelle has launched Let’s Move!, a campaign to eliminate childhood obesity by the next generation, creating a White House garden and touring schools to promote healthy eating.

Watching her hula-hoop with kids from local schools, you get the feeling that she could look dignified doing pretty much anything.

And her efforts are paying off.

In December, a bill to make school lunches more nutritious and more accessible – one she supported – was passed, and the president signed it into law.

Presumably, food was judged the less controversial issue.

Though detractors have managed to find plenty to mock and quibble with on the matter of nutrition, focusing on childhood obesity allows Obama to remain motherly – and thus safely within the American comfort zone for “acceptable” First Lady initiatives.

Focusing her advocacy on issues related to women’s equality, such as guaranteed sick leave to care for family members, on the other hand, could get her into trouble. Remember when Hillary Clinton had to bake cookies to stave off outrage about her interest in weighty policy issues?

In truth, though the work/family balance is often categorised as a “women’s issue,” the problems of caring for families weigh on men, too. And the policy solutions that would better enable women to care for their families are gender neutral.

Though “women’s organisations” such as the National Partnership have been at the forefront of the push for paid sick days, for instance, the policy would benefit all workers.

Similarly, leave laws – whether paid family leave or parental leave – apply to both men and women, though they’re often perceived as benefiting only mothers.

On both paid sick days and family leave, we’ve suffered major disappointments during the Obama years.

Before Obama took office, a national paid sick days law seemed poised to pass. Back when Bush was the president, he was the big obstacle to its passage.

Meanwhile, money the president included in last year’s budget to help states implement paid family leave programmes still hasn’t been allocated, and might very well not survive the next round of budget compromises.

The main obstacle to progress is Republican opposition.

And given that opposition, there has been a surprising amount of success.

Most notably in health reforms, which helps women and mothers, who are disproportionately uninsured, get health coverage.

So did the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which extended the period in which a woman – or man – can file an equal-pay lawsuit, and which Obama signed upon entering office.

The White House also created a Forum on Workplace Flexibility and another on Women and Girls.

Still, it’s not the revolution that seemed possible during the campaign.

And I can’t help but imagine how much more progress we might have made if Michelle Obama had been able to unleash her formidable power on issues central to women’s equality.

» Lerner is the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation

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