Don't get me wrong: I have enormous respect for Michelle Obama. She has brought dignity and purpose to the White House and sets a high bar in terms of intelligence and style for First Ladies to follow. According to Jodi Kantor's book The Obamas she is a force to be reckoned with in the White House. Still, I wonder why she isn't being more 21st century as First Lady.
The nutrition thing is good as is her commitment to military families, although word has it there's more front than back there. (One expert on mental health issues of returning vets calls it "a PR thing.") Also, I totally get that a lot goes on behind the scenes and that as a mom of school age kids, it's important to put family first.
Still, as an experienced professional and a highly intelligent First Lady with deep convictions, Ms. Obama has an extraordinary opportunity to address selected critical issues in this uncertain and contentious time, and to exert at least a certain amount of influence around current issues such as pay equity and reproductive rights. Instead, she has chosen to play her part cautiously, positioning herself as a rather traditional First Lady who chooses safe issues and treads lightly. She is more Nancy Reagan than Hillary Clinton.
As First Lady, Ms. Clinton set an extraordinary precedent when she was in the White House. You can criticize her handling of the health care debacle but not the fact that she took it on. Nor can you fail to admire her public commitment to women, even though she took a lot of heat for speaking out forcefully on their behalf. For those of us who watched her in action in Beijing at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women there was no more thrilling moment in the history of First Ladies than when she read the riot act to the Chinese because of their terrible oppression of women.
Cataloging a litany of human rights abuses the world was stunned as Clinton declared, "It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights. It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food or drowned or have their spines broken, simply because they are born girls," she continued. "It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war."
It's not as though Clinton is the only former First Lady who had fire in her belly. Eleanor Roosevelt was the most influential First Lady this country has ever seen. She actively used her role to advance causes she deemed significant, including New Deal proposals, educational reform, and equal rights and opportunities for all in a time of violent racism. As her biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook said, "Her gift for organizing and her astonishing energy and determination to do good, combined with her famous name made her an influential figure in both social reform and partisan politics." She was involved with the League of Women Voters, the Women's Trade Union League, and the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. "Against the men bosses," Roosevelt wrote, "there must be women bosses who can talk as equals, with the backing of a coherent organization of women voters behind them."
There were other First Ladies who made a mark in their time. Helen Taft advocated for women's right to vote. Edith Wilson undertook many "details of government" when her husband Woodrow suffered a stroke. More recently Betty Ford transformed the role of First Lady when she publicly confronted breast cancer as well as her battle with substance abuse. In 1991 she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for "selfless, strong, and refreshing leadership on a number of issues," including women's rights.
The wife of the U.S. president can exert enormous influence on the issues of her time. She has the ear of the president and her own bully pulpit. So Michelle, where is the real fire in your belly? What is it you truly want to speak out about or see changed? What do you want your legacy to be as a 21st century First Lady?
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