BY SUSAN ESTRICH
She is the most popular and most admired woman in the world. She has smarts, beauty, style, a great husband, a great mother, two beautiful children and a very handsome dog.
Everyone loves Michelle Obama.
Except for half the people I run into every day.
“Do you really like her?” they say in a whisper. “Leaves me cold,” I hear all the time. “Ice cold.” I should add that most of the people saying these things are Democrats, and many of them are women who will be the first to admit that they might actually have a lot in common with her. Not liking Michelle Obama is not politically correct. Everyone who says it, at least to me, whispers. I bet they lie to pollsters, too.
What’s going on? Do I just know a lot of weird outliers? Maybe. But what about all those people in markets who sidle up and say the same thing? What about the flight attendants who tell me how much they like him, but that she makes their skin crawl?
Mind you, I’m not worried about Michelle. She looks like she’s having a fine time. I’m not taking anything away from her for all the work she put in to get them both to where they are. But let’s face it: She’s one lucky lady.
No, it’s what people’s reactions to her say about our attitudes toward powerful women that interests me. She may be fine, but what about everybody else?
Hillary Clinton was supposed to be a “transitional figure.” Remember that? But transitional to what? Not a woman president, as it turned out, but another powerful wife in the White House.
Michelle has avoided some of Hillary’s “mistakes.” She doesn’t have an office in the West Wing. She is not, at least from the public view of it, picking the next Supreme Court Justice. Her announced initiative – work-family balance – is about as far as you can get from running the health reform task force [not staying home and baking those chocolate chip cookies] and firing the head of the White House Travel Office. Maybe I’m not hanging out at the right water coolers, but I haven’t heard too many stories of Michelle using her husband’s power to reward her friends or punish her enemies.
So why do people resent her? Why do I hear it said that she is too pushy and too power hungry?
Because she wears nice clothes? Expensive sneakers? Gets professionally made up every day? Come on. With Hillary, people complained that she didn’t care enough about her appearance, that she wasn’t the fashion-setter Jackie Kennedy had been. So here comes a woman who does and is, and what do we say? Poof on that. She spends too much on clothes, even if it’s her own money. J.Crew looks fancier on her than it does on the rest of us. And she’s not even skinny!
And then there’s the vegetable garden. I hear lots of complaints about that. What’s wrong with a vegetable garden? Isn’t that just the sort of thing a nonthreatening 21st-century first lady should do? I think if Barbara Bush had had a vegetable garden, everyone would have thought it was nifty.
Michelle Obama made a very large mistake when she said that her husband’s run for the presidency was the first time she’d been proud of her country. But she said that a long time ago. It is very difficult to be on the road and on the record every day for 19 months or so and not make one or two mistakes. When you compare her to Joe Biden, who’s been in the business for decades, I think the only fair conclusion is that she has been a disciplined, savvy, articulate player in a very tough arena.
If people don’t like her – and I have no doubt that many people don’t, whatever the polls say – it’s not because she gave them ammunition; it’s not because of race [OK, maybe race plays in, but they like her husband]; it’s not because she’s done anything to offend.
Figuring out how to “be” is one of the challenges women face in the public world. Sure, family matters a lot – the primary reason women haven’t made it to the top is because we raise kids. But women who don’t have kids, or whose kids have long since been raised, still run into formidable obstacles, unconscious discrimination based on unspoken assumptions about how powerful women are supposed to act. In the literature, it’s called the comfort zone – the little teeny zone between too sexy and not feminine enough; between a tiger and a marshmallow; between pushy and pushover.
That’s what Michelle Obama is up against. And she’s not the only one.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer