Monday, November 24, 2008

Advice pours in for Michelle Obama

According to Rachel Swarns' story in the New York Times, the advice is coming from around the world, including some from Cherie Blair, who proffered hers in her regular column for The Times (London). Like French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, Blair continued to work while her husband was the leader of the United Kingdom. (Of course, they have very different careers: Blair is a senior barrister; Bruni is a singer). Blair wrote in her column:

You have to learn to take the back seat, not just in public, but in private . . . . When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed, or for dinner, or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept that he had something more important to do. * * * It is something of an irony that in these days of pushing for equality those of us married to our political leaders have to put their own ambitions on hold while their spouses are in office and keep their views to themselves. I, at least, had my career. That is not an option for Michelle Obama.

I have recently recalled here Hillary's 1992 adjustment to becoming first lady. Swarns' story informs us that Hillary is the only first lady prior to Michelle Obama to have an active career until shortly before her husband became President. The only other first lady to have an advanced degree was Laura Bush, and I believe that degree was in the rather lower profile subject of library science.

Also of great interest for purposes of our seminar on gender's role in the 2008 election is the observation that Michelle Obama became more popular (or at least more "celebrated" by the media) once she quit her job and fully embraced the role of "mom-in-chief."

Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of “Mommy Wars,” an anthology of essays (Random House, 2006), argued on the NPR program “Tell Me More” that Mrs. Obama had been “put in a box” and was only celebrated in the news media after she decided “to put her family first.”

In the online magazine Salon, Rebecca Traister bemoaned what she described as the “momification of Michelle Obama,” criticizing the news media’s focus on Mrs. Obama’s search for schools for her two young daughters, her fashion sense and her pledge that her No. 1 job is “to be Mom.”

Traister laments the lack of "curiosity about how Michelle will adjust to the loss of her own private, very successful, very high-profile and very independent identity." Leaving work that one enjoys is a huge adjustment, and Ms. Obama's last job was a $300K/year Vice Presidency at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Nevertheless, as one commentator points out, unlike most women who leave work to be a trailing spouse, Ms. Obama's career won't suffer long-term consequences. She will be highly sought after for law firm partnerships and other roles as soon as his Presidency ends.

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