I know I am supposed to love Michelle Obama’s DNC speech. The talking heads on CNN and the endless stream of comments on my Facebook page tell me so: “A showstopper.” “Hillary’s ace.” “Powerful.” “Stirring.” Still, I am disappointed.
Obama’s speech is framed around themes of motherhood and childrearing. She reminds us that the president is, primarily, a role model for children. Sure, this is true yet it has very little to do with the substance of the job that Hillary Clinton is applying for.
Michelle Obama is a Harvard Law School graduate, a former executive director of Public Allies, and a university and hospital administrator. As first lady she has spearheaded national movements against childhood obesity and in support of military families. She is also the mother of two seemingly incredibly grounded daughters.
Hillary Clinton is a Yale Law School graduate, worked as a public interest lawyer for decades, led health care reform efforts as first lady, was elected to the Senate for two terms where she sat on the Senate Budget, Armed Services, and Education and Labor committees. Let’s not forget that Clinton served as Secretary of State for 5 years. Clinton is also a mother and grandmother.
Given the professional accomplishments of both women, I am disenchanted by the fact that Michelle Obama chose to focus her endorsement speech of the country’s first female presidential nominee wholly on the motif of motherhood. Most male presidential candidates are parents but being a father is rarely held up as prevailing qualification for the job of president. I have misgivings about the heavy emphasis on Obama and Clinton’s maternalism. I worry that it distracts from the job qualifications that Hillary Clinton has earned, throughout her lifetime, to be uniquely positioned to walk into the Oval Office on day one and serve as president.
Michelle Obama used the words “children,” “kids,” and “daughters” 34 times in her endorsement speech yet never said the word “Senator.” Not once. Hillary Clinton’s steadiness and measured disposition may come from being a mother to her child and a “champion for children” globally. Yet, Clinton has also carefully cultivated and constructed a career where she’s been forced to make impossibly difficult decisions, under tremendous pressure, and with consequences that go well beyond her nuclear family.
Decades ago, when Hillary Clinton was asked about her advocacy and policy work as first lady, she responded, much to the ire of some, “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.” Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the choices of a woman who wants her primary identity to be wrapped in the mantle of mother and homemaker but that hasn’t been Clinton’s mainstay.
Understandably, we are in unchartered territory with Clinton’s nomination as the first female president. I am sure Michelle Obama’s speech went a long way to “soften” Hillary Clinton’s image with women. I sat on the couch watching the speech next to a female friend, a mother, who wept because the speech touched a cord. I get it. I just don’t like it.
In her DNC speech, Michelle Obama implies, not so subtly, that she and Hillary Clinton each have “the most difficult” and “the most important” job, that of being a mother. Sure, being a mother is a hard job but is it “harder” than being Secretary of State of the United States? The comparison is an impossible trap and one that many women, both mothers and non-mothers, face throughout our careers.
In a 2007 60 Minutes episode, reporter Lesley Stahl asked actress Felicity Huffman if being a mother was the “best achievement” of Huffman’s life. Huffman, a multiple Emmy and Global Globe Award winner, responded with indignation:
No, no, and I resent that question. Because I think it puts women in an untenable position, because unless I say to you, ‘”Oh, Lesley, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my whole life,” I’m considered a bad mother.
As I watched Michelle Obama’s speech, I felt a sinking feeling that Obama and Hillary Clinton’s hard fought, glass ceiling smashing, publicly-focused professional accomplishments were being negated, or at least diminished, at the expense of their private, familial roles.
The reduction of Clinton to mother-in-chief may be just what is needed to land our first female president in office. In 2008, many white, liberal voters were comfortable with Obama because he was black, but not too black. Similarly, maybe we need to ease into the reality of a woman leading the country by reminding ourselves that she still fits neatly into our collective conception of what it means to be a woman: professionally capable andmaternal to the core. Michelle Obama’s speech drives home this duality.
Years down the line, after we’ve gotten over this hurdle of putting the first female in office, perhaps women running for the highest office, and those speaking as her surrogate, will calibrate political speech and find parity with the rhetoric of highly ambitious male politicians and vice versa. For now, I suppose we shouldn’t cast out the good, Obama’s DNC speech, at the expense of the perfect. As a feminist, I look forward to the day when a professionally accomplished, female public servant can give an exhilarating and convincing presidential endorsement speech on behalf of another highly qualified female candidate and not have the speech be overshadowed by predictable themes of maternalism.