In thinking more about the use of the quote by Michelle Obama in Shandy and Moe’s “100-Hour Couples,” the nature of that quote, and the fact that the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) is an opted-out lawyer mom (albeit due to circumstances most of us can’t even begin to imagine), it occurred to me that she is not the first opted-out lawyer mom to be married to a US president. That honor goes to Hillary Clinton.
Now, whether these two women actually ‘opted out’ while serving as FLOTUS leaves room for debate. Each is a lawyer, but neither was/is practicing law while FLOTUS. Each had/has school-aged children. But being FLOTUS is a full-time job in and of itself – just ask her staff and schedulers, or the current First Grandmother. Each woman did/does have a husband with an arguably ‘more successful’ career, and each woman is/was unpaid for her work.
But there end the similarities. Hillary Clinton was frequently criticized for everything from her statement that she didn’t ‘bake chocolate chip cookies,’ to using a double last name (Hillary Rodham Clinton), to trying to be co-President (think health-care reform). During Bill Clinton’s campaigns for the presidency, she was often considered a liability.
Michelle Obama, on the other hand, seems to be beloved for her sense of fashion, for being a wonderful mother, for her White House vegetable garden (which made the cover of Better Homes and Gardens), and working to reduce childhood obesity in America. Considering Hillary’s reception by the American public, when it came time to introduce Michelle to the American public, the Obama team focused very little on her professional qualifications (like degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law) or her very successful career, and focused instead on her identity as a traditional mother. As a result, unlike Hillary, Michelle was often considered an asset to Barack Obama’s campaign.
Then consider how each woman’s term as FLOTUS will be remembered by history. Visit the First Lady’s official web-site, and you’ll read the following: “When people ask First Lady Michelle Obama to describe herself, she doesn’t hesitate to say that first and foremost, she is Malia and Sasha’s mom.” The White House’s description of Hillary’s term as First Lady opens with a 1992 quote, “Our lives are a mixture of different roles. Most of us are doing the best we can to find whatever the right balance is . . . For me, that balance is family, work, and service.”
Wow. When it comes to what America ‘approves’ of in our FLOTUS, ‘balance’ seems to loose, as does the use of non-traditionally female skills (those other than cookie-baking, shall we say), while complete and devoted motherhood wins the day. (Or shall I say, balance is so twenty years ago?) Has America made a cultural shift away from balance? Or have younger women – Michelle Obama’s generation, compared to Hillary’s Boomer-era peers – realized that balance is simply not achievable in today’s workplace, so why try? Or is the image of the current FLOTUS, Esq. simply cold, hard, calculated politics?
What does this mean to the rest of us? If mother-lawyers as independently successful as Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are vilified when they engage in what remains a man’s world, and are lauded and loved when they retreat into the domestic realm, how can the rest of us mere mortals expect our employers or careers to allow balance and fulfillment?