Michelle Obama’s minefield

by on November 23, 2008  •  In Race

By Chrystia Freeland in Financial Times

… The First Lady occupies an odd position in American life, at once on a pedestal and under a microscope. Her husband is the nation’s foremost politician and her main job is to help him do his. But she must always remember that she holds no elected office and wields no independent political power. She is the chief ceremonial female – literally the First Lady – in a country still unsure about the proper role of women in public and private life. If she happens to be African-American, she is a symbol of her race. Oh, and she must be able to choose precisely the right dress for every occasion.

Curtis Sittenfeld – author of Prep and American Wife - speculates that Mrs Obama’s formative years spent as a member of a racial minority at elite institutions – from the “magnet” high school she attended in Chicago to Princeton and Harvard Law School – may be one reason she seems so sure-footed in her new, hypervisible role: “That phenomenon of being overanalysed and having people see all your behaviour as symbolic is probably something that she has experienced for most of her life, certainly more than most white first ladies.”

One of Mrs Obama’s most thoughtful public analysts is her husband. In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama introduces her as “smart, funny and thoroughly charming”. When he first met the 44-year-old two decades ago – she was his summer adviser at Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm – what immediately struck him was her height. “She is also very beautiful, although not in a way that men find intimidating or women find off-putting; it is the lived-in beauty of the mother and busy professional.”…

Bringing together work, family and politics has not always been easy for the Obamas. In his autobiography, Mr Obama writes that, by the time Sasha was born, “my wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained”. He recalls: “I found myself subjected to endless negotiations about every detail of managing the house, long lists of things that I needed to do or had forgotten to do, and a generally sour attitude.”…

Simply by inhabiting the White House, Mrs Obama will be making political history and delivering a powerful political message. “We are still in a time where an image of a tall, really brown-skinned woman as a model of beauty and achievement is striking,” said Lynnette Clemetson, editor of The Root. “I am still stopped cold in a very emotional way every time I see a picture of her, especially if it includes her daughters. I am struck by the fact that those three black women will be living in the White House and they won’t be cooking there, and they won’t be cleaning there. They will be living there.”

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