Saturday, October 31, 2009

Read On!: "The First (Black) Lady"

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures ... to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and wome, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women....
-- Article 5, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Stereotypes about Black women rarely involve images of political power or social influence. I’ve been reflecting on this while reading an intriguing article by Verna Williams (below left), Professor of Law, and Co-Director of the Law and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. (Photo, below left). The essay, titled “The First (Black) Lady,” explores media and popular images of Michelle Obama (above), First Lady of the United States of America. (photo credit)
The piece is part of a University of Denver Law Review special issue on “Obama Phenomena.” Williams argues "that the gender and racial norms contributing to the traditional notion of First Lady exemplify the intertwined nature of racism and sexism, and particularly how they have been used to justify Black subordination.” It also explores the “transformative potential” of Mrs. Obama’s presence in this role. (Williams notes that Obama prefers the honorific “Mrs.”).

Fashioning a First Lady?
We’ve all heard more than enough about the faux “fashionista wars” between Mrs. Obama and France's First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (a professional fashion model). Still, it is difficult not to be pleased by the cross-cultural acknowledgements of physical health, discipline, beauty, and grace in a prominent African-American woman. Stereotypes about Black women have been so often thoroughly derogatory. The fact that a woman of color could be a global trend-setter is too rare a thing to reject.
Television now even embraces at least one “Black woman as fashion trendsetter” in the post-feminist person of fictional (and thoroughly ruthless) fashion power broker “Wilhelmina Slater” (played by actor Vanessa L. Williams on “Ugly Betty”). But fashion trendsetting is only one form of power—and a particularly gendered one.

Michelle Obama was an attorney for a multinational law firm and an administrator for a major university medical center. She is a committed mother and family member. She has strong ideas about health, education, the rights of women workers, and the work/family balance. (See White House profile here.) That's as it should be. We are, after all, approaching the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (and still awaiting ratification by the United States).

Who are we looking for?
As Verna Williams notes, however, we in the U.S. and outside it remain profoundly ambivalent about the role(s) of First Ladies. They are unelected and therefore should not exercise presidential powers. Yet they are often the closest advisers to presidents. They have always brought their own intellectual, political, social, and personal perspectives to Washington and beyond. The first UN Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Eleanor Roosevelt (below right) is a case in point, given her domestic and international advocacy. (photo credit) (Click here for posts by Beth Van Schaack and other IntLawGrrls on Ms. Roosevelt.) Historians reveal that the subtle or overt influence of First Ladies on presidential decision-making stretches back to the nation's founding and did not end with now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) and former First Lady Laura Bush.
Their every move is scrutinized, whether it is in how they raise their children or what they said in a speech on health insurance reform. They represent the United States as cultural leaders in the art they select for the White House. They are expected to be “diplomats” by hosting foreign officials; they can cause an “international incident” with remarks at a state dinner abroad. The planting of a vegetable garden or a rose garden can cause a run on local plant nurseries. According to Williams,

These responsibilities, substantive and stylistic in nature, also carry the mark of traditional domesticity, and the gendered expectations that comprise it. Namely, the primary focus of the First Lady’s role is on the private sphere—that is, the home and family. Paramount among her duties is supporting her spouse at home so that he may succeed in the public sphere.

"Playing" herself
For First Ladies, the simplest gestures are fraught with social, cultural, and economic meanings. For example, many African-American observers, including me, found the sight of Michelle Obama jumping “double-dutch” (a complicated form of rope-jumping) at a White House "Healthy Kids Fair" to be a wonderful moment. None of us thought we’d ever see what we might have thought of as a Black "girls' game” being played at the White House. That game is now considered a sport, and requires significant physical stamina, balance, hand-eye coordination, and skill to perfect. (A virtuoso performance at the World Double-Dutch Championship is linked here.) Such symbols indicate that positive African-American and historically gender-linked traditions can represent an “American” tradition as well.
The more significant transformative potential of this “First Black Lady” status is yet to be seen (as will the potential of a future first “First Gentleman”). But I suspect it will be fulfilled by observers of the White House, not those inside it. It will be evident when we are prepared to assess presidential partners for who they are, not who we imagine them to be.
Thanks to Alexis Smith for her research assistance.

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