This began as an essay about the re-emergence of the “having it all” debate, led by Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic last year. Then, the Washington Post ran a story this week about the feminist backlash against Michelle Obama’s insistence that she is a “mom-in-chief,” and this essay took on a new life for me. I have argued that trickle-down feminism, the likes of which Slaughter champions, is an elitist pipe dream that embraces capitalistic exploitation as a means to liberate some women from toiling among the masses of all women. Who must clean your toilets at Princeton on third shift so that a powerful woman can ruminate on the limits of her power?
Michelle Obama (with Condoleezza Rice) figured prominently in Slaughter’s argument as an example of the inclusivity of her hypothesis. I hope Slaughter reads the same Washington Post article I read. The article is rhetorically convoluted, but it is also illustrative of why Slaughter’s central claim is built on quicksand. If, as the Post asserts, “feminist Americans” are “let down” by Michelle Obama’s choice to “work” as a parent rather than in the paid labor force, then there is no such thing as being powerful enough to transcend the double-bind of being both black and a woman.
The “having it all” hypothesis has been thoughtfully and critically engaged by many for ignoring issues of class, status, and privilege. I will go one step further and say that the Anne Marie Slaughters of the world are not naive when they cloak their proximity to white patriarchy in emotional populist appeals to all women. They are intentionally employing the very neo-liberal tools of co-opting, marginalization, and brand building that helped make them privileged in the first place. It is not a novel argument, but that we must still remind the world that poor women, black women, brown women, queer women, working class women, and all manner of not powerful women exist, suggests that now is as good a time as any to revisit why, as Flavia Dzodan so eloquently put it, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be BS.”
The Post’s treatment of feminism and Michelle Obama has more B.S. than intersectionality. The obfuscations abound. First, there is this odd aside to “feminist Americans” later placed in opposition to “black feminists.” It is unclear who the former is, but it is particularly clear who the latter is not: black feminists are not mainstream feminists. This treatment of feminism sets up the premise that Michelle Obama may be living some black feminist fantasy, but she has not ascended to acceptable “feminist American” ideals. The idea of being a “mom-in-chief” is apparently antithetical to acceptable choices that feminist Americans make. I do not want to pile on the writer. Frankly, her artlessness only reveals what many believe. Her problem is not that she has said that Michelle Obama is failing at feminism; it’s that she did not obscure that belief in the elitism that Slaughter so casually tosses about her “having it all” thesis.
Black feminists have been fighting this fight for a long time. The tension is grounded in the relative position to power that the Anne Marie Slaughters of the world have enjoyed by their proximity to white men. But Michelle turns that equation on its head. She is as close to power as any white woman has ever been. She is making choices afforded to her by the role of First Lady. That her choice is to work in the home rather than the workforce is only revolutionary because she is black. Every white First Lady has made the same decision. They were chided but they were not unilaterally cast as feminist failures. Neither was feminism constructed as “feminist Americans” versus black feminists to deconstruct the choices of white First Ladies. I do not recall a single instance of mainstream reporting on the black feminist response to Hillary Clinton as she reshaped the role of First Lady. Why, then, is it salient now?
Well, we know why, of course. We cannot reconcile Michelle Obama in the feminist imaginary anymore than we have been able to reconcile the reality of black women or poor women or immigrant women or trans women or any non-middle class white woman with “feminist Americans.” No matter how you define it, black women have always worked. Our bodies were literally constructed through enslavement as work units and modes of production. Our reproduction was a capitalist endeavor in labor production. If no black woman ever again works in the paid labor force in any position ever again ever, we are all rightful heirs to feminism by virtue of our lived historical experience in the U.S. Black women do not have to earn feminism. If anything, feminism should be earning black women. Even if we put aside the issues of terming motherhood as non-work as compatible with feminism (which it is not), the idea that someone who has come through black women, as has Michelle Obama, would need to prove her feminist bona fides to “feminist Americans” is ahistorical and disingenuous.
It is also why “having it all” debates hold very little appeal for me.
Michelle Obama was born poor and black, worked her way through an elite education and can rest her head in the Roosevelt room at the White House. If she cannot have it all – all the choices, all the freedom, all the autonomy to be what she wants to be on her own terms, including rejecting the very premise of an “all” to be had – then surely there is no “all” for colored girls like me.
This is what the Anne Marie Slaughters of the world fail to understand. They make Michelle Obama’s decision to work outside the paid labor market a function of elite sexism. It is a convenient misconstrual that tosses aside the inconvenient reality of race to push a version of feminism from which Slaughter benefits. The Washington Post, in casting Michelle as the antifeminist, also gets it wrong because it defines real feminism as the interests of white feminists. This conveniently ignores status hierarchies, history, and capitalism. Neither camp can understand Michelle Obama because they cannot, will not, dare not fully imagine the reality of black women.
Black women complicate trickle-down feminism because ours is a feminism not rooted in pedestals but in work. It has glass ceilings and concrete skies. It is horizontal and vertical; material and transcendent. It is the living embodiment of feminism and, as such, a threat to those who would sell us feminist “drank” as juice.
Do not doubt that is what is happening here. We are being sold an illusion, a particular bill of goods designed to assuage our thirst for real feminism that works for real women in our daily lives. It might sell a few books, a few more newspapers, a few more advertising placements, but it is not the real deal. I, for one, am not buying it. Fortunately, I am a black woman so I don’t have to and neither does Michelle Obama.