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What Michelle Obama is Giving Up: A Question of Power

Hey all,

I have an essay in The Root today about Michelle Obama and feminism.

Yesterday afternoon, in tandem with the essay on Michelle Obama, I joined a group of exceptional women including Anna Perez, the former Press Secretary for Barbara Bush, Leslie Morgan Steiner, the editor of the best-selling anthology Mommy Wars, and Jolene Ivey, co-founder of Mocha Moms, on Michel Martin's NPR show Tell Me More to talk about:

What Michelle Obama is Giving Up.

It was a fascinating conversation, but five intense women talking about Michelle Obama for thirty-five minutes? We could have been there for hours. I left the studio thinking about all the things I wished there had been more time to say.

I wish the show had been called "What Michelle Obama is Gaining."

There was certainly more to say about the question of "power" vs "influence." It's my view that Michelle has the opportunity to have a tremendous amount of power--political, personal, ideological, symbolic, financial, social, maternal, emotional, psychological-- but Anna Perez opined Michelle will have influence, but because she can't write legislation and doesn't have a vote on key issues, she won't have power. 

But there are different kinds of power. Laws change administration to administration, but transforming the consciousness of a generation is forever. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. have power or influence? Did Jackie Kennedy want more power and less influence? How about Eleanor Roosevelt? And what about our former First Lady, Hillary Clinton? She almost because POTUS in large part as a result of her "influence." What about the Nobel committee? Do they have power or influence? Freud and Jung? Moses?

I was taken aback by Anna Perez's view, her privileging one realm, the political, over what could be called the personal or communal, a view that has disempowered women for centuries. And I was struck by how difficult it seemed for many of the women in the conversation to see Michelle as anything but a victim. Incredibly, they seemed to think she was more powerful as a hospital administrator than First Lady.

We denigrate Michelle by denigrating her choices. Projecting an idea of her as a deer in the headlights rather than a lioness on the plain reflects a crisis of the imagination, and speaks volumes about what we think is possible for a woman, or any human being, to negotiate.

People working to create a better world dismiss their accomplishment at their own peril. They resign themselves to a lifetime of disappointment.

What do you think? Do you have power or influence, power and influence, or no power and no influence?

How do you define power? 

November 28th, 2008


Comment #1 by Anonymous on November 19, 2008 - 1:46am

I think the dominant image of Michelle Obama will be that of a wife and mother. She will be a traditional First Lady and an emblem for the ideal of the 21st century black family. I think we'll see lots of footage of her and First Granny with the children. I do not think she will concern herself with policy or make any statements that could be considered controversial.

For African-Americans, the image of an nuclear family and blissful domesticity are new. I hope this replaces all of those images of gangsters and hoods and baby mamas that have affected a whole generation of youth. Rap culture became this country's dominant youth culture, and I hope that ends. I hope images of black men with gold teeth and foolish names jumping up and down become as outdated and offensive as images of Amos and Andy. We need a culture of achievement. In that respect, she has the power to create a new ideal for African-Americans.

Comment #2 by lori on November 19, 2008 - 6:09am

Good one. I would say in the most simplest way, power is the ability to cause change. Whether that change be positive or negative one most exercise their power to make it happen. As you said, there are different levels of power and I would add also, different forms of power. I mean if we think of all the ways in which we can bring about change.... power can take the form of simply signing one's name on a piece of legislation to volunteering a few hours in a local high school. Didn't we display our power on November 4?

Is one form of power better than the other? I would say as long as that change is still occurring, No. One form of power may ease the process leading to change but that doesn't neccesarily make it better.

I think influence is sometimes the result of power and often leads to one having a higher degree of power. Yet again, being at varying levels and coming in varying forms.

Do I have power? you betcha
Do I have influence? I like to think so
Will Michelle loose her power or influence? heck no
Will she use her influence and exercise her power? heck yes!

side note:
The above comment rocked my socks a little bit. As an African-
American, the Obama's definitely do not count as a new family image. We've always had nuclear family images within our community (Family Matters, The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, etc.)while the Obama's are among one the first "real" African American family's to be in the spotlight- the idea of a happily married black couple with happy children definitely isn't new. Plus, how common is the nuclear family these days anyway? For blacks, whites, hispanics, whoever.

Also, It's not fair to equate the entity of rap culture with negative stereotypes. As a young woman coming of age during this time, I have a deep appreciation for the art of rap and the culture of hip-hop. I will agree that some things about rap should change but to only equate rap with violence, gangs and baby's born out of wedlock just isn't right.

Comment #3 by Danielle on November 19, 2008 - 8:26pm

"She gave up a lucrative career as a hospital executive to join her husband, President-elect Barack Obama, on the campaign trail."

This makes it sound as if a career with a hospital is better than being first lady.

Comment #4 by rebecca on November 19, 2008 - 9:07pm
Danielle--my feeling exactly. I'm sure being a hospital administrator is a wonderful and exciting opportunity, but, I'm pretty sure which I would choose. And I don't think I'm in the minority.
Comment #5 by rebecca on November 19, 2008 - 9:07pm

Lori--I agree. I wish the conversation had been called:

What Michelle Obama Will Gain: Power and Influence


Comment #6 by RUSSELL on November 20, 2008 - 6:39pm

The power and influence, she has in her position is related to the figure head premise. The President and First Lady, first and foremost, are representatives of the collective personality of the government. The leaders give the country a personality and Michelle and Barry will give the US a new personality, one of possibility and racial equality. Barack has already changed the outlook of the People of color in my neck of the woods . MicheLle will change the attitude and self esteeme of millions of African American women and give the backbone of the Black community, new life. Michelle will influence every aspect of our culture. The pulpit of the white house gives all of it's occupants a strong voice . No other position on earth wields such influence . I prey that the power they will inherit will not corrupt them or change their core principles.
I was upset when Barack disowned Jerimia Wright. I do not believe in what Wright was saying ,but principle demands that a person of morals never desserts their friends.Barack and Michelle should have stood up and said we don't agree with him but we support his right and obligation to pose such questions to the public. That is real power

Comment #7 by BrownImani on November 20, 2008 - 9:46pm

Great post Rebecca. I read the 4 posts on The Root. I listened to the NPR interview also and I could not agree with you more. I would have loved to see the 5 of you interacting.

I could not disagree with Mrs. Perez more though. She believes the First Lady has no power. I know she was there for 8 years but you have to look at the personality and the generation of the First Lady she worked for. Totally different !! Michelle is a different kind of woman and Barack is a different kind of man. First Lady is a very powerful position, in the country and the world. It is up to the First Lady to use that power or not use it. Mrs. Perez herself said the First Lady "writes the rules!"

Comment #8 by kemitcush on November 22, 2008 - 9:18pm

Ms Walker,

Everything I have read of yours I like. Well thought out and communicated effectively.

I think that power is the ability to directly create outcomes due to direct control of people or institutions. Influence I see as the ability to indirectly create outcomes through the ability to impact the thinking (and therefore the behavior) of others.

For example, black americans have very limited power, in part due to oppression and in part due to our own actions and inactions. On the other hand, black Americans decisively influence America and the world in innumerable ways. Black American culture and our extraordinary ability to survive with grace and style under great oppression has a significant and continual influence on the entire world.

Power can originate from personal ability, but it can also be totally unrelated to ability. Although the same is true of influence, the importance of ability in creating influence can give the small the impact of the great.

I don't know that much about Ms Obama, but it appears that she is gifted in natural ability. She now also has additional influence as the incoming first lady. Her options, which were already multitudinous are now multiplied far beyond this. Not only this, but she will not be limited by the center of the road, "don't worry, I won't help black people" limitations that her husband appears to continue to impose upon himself. She has her own influence, augmented by her husbands power with fewer restrictions.

I wish her well. She has brains, she is a communicator (just like you) and she has plenty of options. Her influence is a category of power with fewer obligations. Her destiny is only limited by her vision.

Comment #9 by Francia - Bodhisattva Harlem Mama on November 22, 2008 - 11:11pm

I think you did a good job speaking up against the pessimism starting to form around Michelle's choices she's making as a very powerful and influential woman, but I also wish the conversation could've been longer. I think that we have made progress in the conversations, in general, about women wanting to take away the power of another woman through denigrating her choices that they themselves disagree with. We now have voices of women more open to the different ways we see ourselves as powerful or influential. Yes, the fact women, and Michelle include, statistically control their household wealth, working or not, richer or poorer, has to be acknowledged as a power influencing the world in a profound way. Acknowledged or not, women of all definitions have so much to offer if they set aside the standards society wishes to hold them down to. Watch Michelle set aside these standards as she transitions herself into the role of First Lady.

I see her humble roots stirring in her a passion for the every day woman's issues, like equal pay, daycare, maternity leave, mother's rights and things of that line. I look forward to what is to come. I think her influence will become quite powerful. I think we have to ask ourselves how we can support her instead of attack her. How we can draw her into our causes instead of criticizing her enough to stay silent.

Also, I really appreciated the conversations on how women of color and woment without many privileges rarely have the opportunity to stop their tiring daily grind to support themselves because they must work to keep food on the table. And many times supporting husbands wielding power and doling out assistance are non-existent. Let's keep that conversation going. Let's acknowledge how many more women see Michelle's blessing to be able to focus just on her children and not on the food, the bills, the mortgage, etc. is a good thing, not something complain about. She's worked hard towards a good life. This is not a bad thing. But let's keep that sliver of the conversation about women in general working hard with little support from family, work or government to be their family's bread winners. That's a shout out to my mama right there.

Comment #10 by rebecca on November 23, 2008 - 12:01am
Yes--agreed. Those conversations are so challenging. I tend to either be so conscious of time, I keep my answers short so everyone can talk--or I'm thrown off by what someone says or taken into a different direction entirely. Anyway--more time was necessary. Such an important and complex discussion. I'm posting the Washington Post on the piece later on today. It, too, was interesting. One of the memes/thread I  was able to touch on was the idea of the feminist cooptation of the work of women of color who do not call themselves feminists; people with the power to name do this naming regardless of how the women see themselves. This desire to deny different cultural approaches (and various inequalities) to "empowerment" by creating this umbrella concept that, at the end of the day, may not serve everyone under that umbrella--even though their place there gives the umbrella legitimacy overall.
Comment #11 by Craig on November 24, 2008 - 6:58pm

Michelle is a brilliant woman who now gets to, in the best sense, guide, follow, influence, speak her truth to power & vicariously mother a robust nation through it's most turbulent years. For some reason I really trust her in that role. The mere suggestion that she is losing anything from the hospital position, no matter how great it may have been, she gains the world literally. Think of Hillary in the early 90's. Well, think of a warmer, kinder, well grounded, African American styled Mother version of Hillary. If we are lucky she will move into the political arena in here own right. Boy what a dream. I have always maintained a black woman is the most powerful thing I have ever seen on earth (maybe it's because I was raised by one). This opine is completely based on the power Hillary now wields. But, can you imagine Senator M. Obama or President M. Obama. I believe Barack can change the world. Michelle could lead it to a glorious future. Perhaps I love Black women too much... I doubt that's possible. They are entirely deserving.

Comment #12 by Anonymous on November 24, 2008 - 9:27pm

I love you Craig. Beautiful.

Comment #13 by anika on November 25, 2008 - 4:37am

there are still persons, dare i say females, like me who covet the type of position as First Lady. powerful? very. the amerikkkan white wash, and i don't mean that racially of societal roles for women (that scariest of terms)has degraded unity to a point where we question partnerships instead of praise them.

Comment #14 by anika on November 25, 2008 - 5:01am

by amerikkka i mean the debasement, lure, violent, decietful, self-loathing, lethal, and devise traits of us capitalism
and by unity -at first i was giving dap to the hetero union
which feels a bit folklorick to dwell on..but any and all peaceful political unions are needed and very powerful in these years of war.
Go Michelle!

Comment #15 by anna perez on December 16, 2008 - 9:19am

as much as i enjoyed the conversation on Michelle's program I had no intention of denigrating anything about Mrs. Obama. As I said, I believe she will have enormous influence--at least as much as Eleanor Roosevelt, if she chooses. Further, it will be influence in ways we can't imagine today. Remember though, as much as Mrs. Roosevelt may have wanted racial equality in this country, it took decades to achieve, even in part. But certainly, her contribution to pushing that rock up the hill was more than significant.

Comment #16 by rebecca on December 16, 2008 - 2:21pm
hey anna! glad you stopped by and weighed in on the subject. i think your view is held by many. i'm glad we've been able to open the discussion. i greatly admire your work and continued contributions and in no way denigrate your choices. i do the find the subject fascinating.
Comment #17 by Coach Outlet Store on December 1, 2010 - 3:41am

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Comment #18 by so sim dep on September 24, 2012 - 1:28am

I love you Craig. Beautiful.

Comment #19 by picolisp on January 13, 2019 - 10:02am

All these stories were cooked in an office to make fool to our nation as we know that every incident in the USA was a preplanned activity of some secret groups and they are holding our economy today, people even don't know much about these things today.

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