Saturday, August 30, 2008

More on Michelle

I was ruminating earlier this week about the intersection of race and gender in the Obama campaign's management of the candidate's wife, Michelle. A few days later I came across some scholarly analysis related to the topic. The article is titled: "Michelle Obama: The 'Darker Side' of Presidential Spousal Involvement and Activism," and it is by Gary S. Parks and Quinetta M. Roberson. Here the abstract:
Pundits and commentators have attempted to make sense of the role that race and gender have played in the 2008 presidential campaign. Whereas researchers are drawing on varying bodies of scholarship (legal, cognitive and social psychology, and political science) to illuminate the role that Senator Obama’s race and Senator Clinton’s gender has/had on their campaign, Michelle Obama has been left out of the discussion. As Senator Clinton once noted, elections are like hiring decisions. As such, new frontiers in employment discrimination law place Michelle Obama in context within the current presidential campaign. First, racism and sexism are both alive and well within the domains of politics and employment. And within both domains, the intersection of these biases uniquely handicap Black women. As such, Michelle Obama, as an individual who has broken the socially acceptable constrictions of race and gender, has suffered some backlash as a result of her beliefs and actions. Second, most racial and gender bias is not express, but unconscious. And these unconscious biases influence behavior—including voting and hiring/promotion. In that vein, there are instances during the 2008 campaign where unconscious biases against Mrs. Obama have occurred. Such instances are similar to fact-patterns in employment discrimination cases. Third, under Title VII, employment discrimination may be directed at a third party for their association with members of a disliked group. Here, some voters’ unconscious race and gender biases against Mrs. Obama likely affected/affects their voting decision vis-à-vis Senator Obama.

Also regarding Michelle, I was somewhat intrigued by this story in the ABA Journal's online edition this week. I am not sure I agree with the gist of this "most emailed" item. The story's headline is "How Michelle Obama's 'Savvy Sacrifice' Helped her Husband, " and it is based to some extent on assertions made in Time magazine last week. Here's the lede:

Working as an associate at a powerhouse international law firm based in Chicago, Michelle Obama had what many would have considered a dream job for a lawyer.

But she gave up the Sidley Austin job to pursue a public interest career. This "savvy sacrifice" has provided her husband, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, the platform he needed to run for public office, reports Time magazine.

First, I am certain that many (of you!) would agree that being an associate at a powerhouse firm is not a "dream job." It may represent a great opportunity right out of law school, but the attrition rate at large law firms is very high, and everyone knows it -- partners, associates, legal educators, other legal employers, etc. In short, it is not unusual for very talented lawyers to leave these jobs within a few years of taking them. Second, it is also not that unusual for those leaving big firms to take lower paying jobs when they go. Lawyers leave for opportunities with better, i.e., more sane, long-term prospects. That 's what Michelle Obama did. Much has been made in the media of her efforts to achieve work-life balance, so perhaps that influenced her, too. To call it a "savvy sacrifice" suggests that this was all part of a long-term strategy by the Obamas to further his political ambitions. Maybe it was -- but if so, aren't we supposed to look down on such behavior? How often have we heard Hillary criticized for being strategic and instrumentalist in her career? But then, she is most recently the candidate herself, not merely the supporting spouse.

On a related note, the "savvy sacrifice" term irritated me because it plays into gendered stereotypes that expect such sacrifice from women. Again, maybe that is how the Obamas saw it -- or maybe they were just making decisions that made sense for them at the time. Michelle Obama's career trajectory looks normal in this day and age. It also looks laudable -- but I wouldn't say sacrificial.

Finally, I have the impression that Michelle Obama has lost weight in the months since her husband's campaign really good traction and gained momentum. I don't know if she has or not, but I regret the incredible pressure she under regarding physical appearance.

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