The Post’s treatment of feminism and Michelle Obama has more B.S. than intersectionality. The obfuscations abound. First, there is this odd aside to “feminist Americans” later placed in opposition to “black feminists.” It is unclear who the former is but it is particularly clear who the latter is not: black feminists are not mainstream feminists. This treatment of feminism sets up the premise that Michelle Obama may be living some black feminist fantasy but she has not ascended to acceptable “feminist American” ideals. The idea of being a “mom-in-chief” is apparently antithetical to acceptable choices that feminist Americans make. I do not want to pile on the writer. Frankly, her artlessness only reveals what many believe. Her problem is not that she has said that Michelle Obama is failing at feminism; it’s that she did not obscure that belief in the elitism that Slaughter so casually tosses about her “having it all” thesis.
Black feminists have been fighting this fight for a long time. The tension is grounded in the relative position to power that the Anne Marie Slaughters of the world have enjoyed by their proximity to white men. But Michelle turns that equation on its head. She is as close to power as any white woman has ever been. She is making choices afforded to her by the role of First Lady. That her choice is to work in the home rather than the workforce is only revolutionary because she is black. Every white First Lady has made the same decision. They were chided but they were not unilaterally cast as feminist failures. Neither was feminism constructed as “feminist Americans” versus black feminists to deconstruct the choices of white First Ladies. I do not recall a single instance of mainstream reporting on the black feminist response to Hillary Clinton as she reshaped the role of First Lady. Why, then, is it salient now?
Well, we know why, of course. We cannot reconcile Michelle Obama in the feminist imaginary anymore than we have been able to reconcile the reality of black women or poor women or immigrant women or trans women or any non-middle class white woman with “feminist Americans.” No matter how you define it, black women have always worked. Our bodies were literally constructed through enslavement as work units and modes of production. Our reproduction was a capitalist endeavor in labor production. If no black woman ever again works in the paid labor force in any position ever again ever, we are all rightful heirs to feminism by virtue of our lived historical experience in the U.S. Black women do not have to earn feminism. If anything, feminism should be earning black women. Even if we put aside the issues of terming motherhood as non-work as compatible with feminism (which it is not), the idea that someone who has come through black women, as has Michelle Obama, would need to prove her feminist bona fides to “feminist Americans” is ahistorical and disingenuous.
It is also why “having it all” debates hold very little appeal for me.