Michelle Obama Has Always Leaned In

Michelle Cottle has written a Politico Magazine piece about Michelle Obama, called "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare." 

Cottle writes that Michelle has "always" prioritized the domestic sphere over the public, political one, thus enraging feminists. But that's not true. First, there are the basic facts of Michelle's biography, many left out of this piece. When Michelle and Barack met, she was his boss in the law firm where he was a summer associate. She worked full-time until her husband began his presidential run. She earned a lot of money. 

On the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, she spoke movingly about how fear had led the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Shortly after the inauguration, the first couple visited a Washington, D.C. public school. When Michelle asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up–and one little girl cried out, "First lady!"–Michelle responded, "It doesn't pay much."

If that's not embracing the "Lean In" ethos, I don't know what is. A FLOTUS with a wry take on her transition from a $316,000 per year job to that of an unpaid figurehead? That's not the Michelle Obama we see in Cottle's portrait. Nor do we see the woman who went on a speaking tour to federal agencies to support the stimulus, and who pushed hard behind the scenes for health reform.

And to be fair, that's not the Michelle Obama that her husband's political advisors are most eager to show off. There has been a concerted push to portray Michelle as the "mom in chief." At times, it has rankled. 

But what's most problematic about the Politico piece is that although Cottle acknowledges race, she doesn't at all address what leading black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry have been talking about for years: that Michelle Obama's focus on portraying herself as an exemplary mother is, in and of itself, somewhat radical, in a country in which the black family is openly pathologized as dysfunctional.

There's another, point, too. The supposedly "soft" issues Michelle has embraced, like healthy eating, exercise, and college-going, are ones that disproportionately affect the black community. Her partnership with Wal-Mart to address inner city food deserts didn't really take off, but at least Michelle helped put this problem on the national agenda.

The first lady role is infuriatingly fluffy, but that isn't Michelle Obama's fault. 

For more on these issues, check out this dialogue on black feminism between Melissa Harris-Perry and philosopher bell hooks.