A few days ago at the White House, as military families enjoyed a Mother’s Day celebration in the chandeliered East Room, Michelle Obama offered praise for their sacrifice and service to America.
And then, scanning the sea of guests, the first lady took a few moments to publicly cheer someone else: her mother, Marian Robinson, seated quietly in the crowd.
“It wouldn’t be a Mother’s Day tea if I didn’t thank my own mommy. Mommy, there you are,” Mrs. Obama said, amid audience applause.
Calling her “my rock,” she noted, “She taught me to believe in myself, and more importantly, to pick myself up whenever I stumble. She is always a shoulder to cry on and talk to, and I do that a lot.”
“She has always inspired me,” the first lady continued, “to push myself to dream even bigger than anything she could ever dream for herself.”
When Barack Obama made history as the nation’s first black President, Michelle Obama was right beside him. As he campaigns for a second term, she continues to make her mark as the only African-American woman ever to serve as first lady of the United States.
Since arriving at the White House, the Princeton and Harvard-educated lawyer has launched signature initiatives to tackle childhood obesity, and teamed with Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, to honor military personnel and their families.
All this, while juggling roles as a wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend — not to mention official and unofficial duties that run the gamut from meeting the Queen of England, planting fresh veggies in the White House garden, or mentoring youth in the nation’s capital.
“What a privilege to have such a smart and powerful first lady,” says Laura Murphy, a lawyer/director with the ACLU in Washington, D.C., who spoke not in her professional capacity, but as an African-American woman, wife and mother.
“She can do push-ups one day, then regally float into a state dinner in a designer gown,” Murphy said. “I think she’s brave and strong and poised and fierce.”
That sentiment was echoed by Patrice Gaines, a women’s advocate who runs the Brown Angels Center, a non-profit in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“When I think of Michelle Obama, the word royalty comes to mind. But there’s a commonality about her,” said Gaines, whose work centers around incarcerated women. “She shows her humanity, her connection to all of us. I respect that she’s not untouchable.”
Indeed, there’s a certain fascination and admiration that African American women have for the first lady.
A 2011 survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that nationwide, black women personally identified with Mrs. Obama, indicating that she understands them and is “mainstreaming” what women of color are capable of, to the world.
Black women see their own potential in Michelle Obama
“Black women look at Michelle Obama and see ourselves; we see our potential, and we see our future,” said Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative in D.C. and a member of the White House Council on Women and Girls Domestic Violence Workgroup.
“We will have children to love, as she loves Malia and Sasha,” said Hoytt. “We will have the love of a successful and powerful partner and supportive mother. As she does.”
Yet obviously, not every American is a Michelle Obama fan or supporter. Like her husband, she has been subjected to partisan attacks from the right, tell-all books, intense media scrutiny, and Internet hatred.
Her very femininity — from wardrobe choices, to her tall, curvy physique — has been picked apart.
“We live in a society where it is sport to try to destroy characters, political careers and professional reputations,” says Dr. Elsie Scott, president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in D.C.
Mrs. Obama weathered criticism during the 2008 campaign, when she was labeled an “angry black woman,” Scott says, but has risen above what she termed “petty and unprofessional attacks” on her and the president.
Michelle Obama has demonstrated “poise, charm and astuteness,” Scott believes. “She’s used her position as first lady to show the world that she not only knows how to survive the political storms, but knows how to thrive.”
While the American public will never know all the behind the scenes emotions, none of what Mrs. Obama must deal with on a day-to-day basis is easy, according to political observers.
“She has to juggle everything a modern woman has to, except on the national and global stage,” notes Dr. Lester K. Spence, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
It’s a Herculean task, he says, complicated further by issues of gender and race.
“Strong first ladies have dealt with structural constraints that date back to Eleanor Roosevelt, on up to Hillary Clinton,” said Spence. “Mrs. Obama was a powerful executive who was placed into a symbolic role. A [first lady] has to become smaller in many ways.”
Moreover, Mrs. Obama, unlike other presidential spouses, must deal with the racial paradigm, including stereotypes about African American women.
“In many ways, she has to carry the [black] race on her shoulders. Or, she’s sexualized by others.”
Lucia Stanton, a historian and noted authority on Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved population at Monticello, says Mrs. Obama’s trajectory mirrors the stream of progress made by black women since slavery was abolished in 1865.
She explains how Edith Fossett, an enslaved woman and expert in French cooking, once toiled over pots and pans in the basement of the White House, built largely with slave labor.
“They’re 200 years apart, but now Michelle is upstairs,” said Stanton.
Cecelie Counts-Blakely, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO on Capitol Hill, who has attended meetings with Mrs. Obama’s staff, and is commenting personally, appreciates the first lady’s efforts to infuse black heritage and culture into the White House.
“They’ve had jazz shows there, and collard greens on the menu,” says Counts-Blakely, who like the Obamas, attended Harvard law school.
“I see the First Lady jumping double dutch, or speaking at historically black colleges,” she adds. “I was there when she helped dedicate the Sojourner Truth monument in D.C., and she spoke of how unimaginable it was to be there. Everyone was in tears.”
When asked if Mrs. Obama has been effective or can do more if her husband is re-elected, Mrs. Obama was given high marks by those interviewed for this article.
Nkechi Taifa, an attorney and Senior Policy Analyst with the Open Society Foundations in D.C., agreed. But she urged even bolder action on human rights issues.
“As mothers, we are compassionate and merciful and, as African American women, we are oh so influential,” said Taifa. “Perhaps a whisper in hubby’s ear to seriously exercise his executive power of clemency and demonstrate compassion by issuing commutations to those serving inordinately severe crack cocaine sentences,” she said.
“And perhaps a whisper in his other ear to issue complete pardons to people who had felony convictions, but are rebuilding their lives and families. They’re unable to fully participate in society after being stripped of the right to vote.”
Murphy said Mrs. Obama is “walking a tightrope” but handling it masterfully. “She’s in a double bind. If she shows too much [power],” it can prove problematic. “And if she keeps the issues too light, she’s viewed as irrelevant.”
Professor Spence of Hopkins, who is an author, husband and father of five, says he looks forward to Michelle Obama’s evolution.
“If the world were right, she might be president [one day], and we might have a first man.”