Monday, November 24, 2008

Advice for Michelle Obama

Apparently it is pouring in from around the world, including some very public advice from Cherie Blair, who proffered it in her regular column for The Times (London). Like French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, Blair continued to work while her husband was the U.K. Prime Minister. Blair wrote in her regular column for The Times of London:

You have to learn to take the back seat, not just in public, but in private . . . When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed, or for dinner, or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept that he had something more important to do.

Blair went on to note the irony that in this age of purported equality those married to political leaders must set aside their ambitions and be seen but not heard. Blair observes that, unlike herself, Michelle Obama will not have that option of continuing to work.

Rachel Swarns' story in today's New York Times reminds us that Hillary Rodham Clinton is the only first lady prior to Michelle Obama to have had an active career until shortly before her husband became President. I have recently recalled here responses to Hillary's becoming first lady in 1992. The only other first lady even to have an advanced degree was Laura Bush, and that degree was in the rather lower profile subject of library science. Ms. Clinton and Ms. Obama, of course, are lawyers.

Also of great interest in Swarns' story is the observation that Michelle Obama became more popular among the electorate once she quit work during her husband's campaign and fully embraced the role of "mom-in-chief."

Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of “Mommy Wars,” an anthology of essays (Random House, 2006), argued on the NPR program “Tell Me More” that Mrs. Obama had been “put in a box” and was only celebrated in the news media after she decided “to put her family first.”

In the online magazine Salon, Rebecca Traister bemoaned what she described as the “momification of Michelle Obama,” criticizing the news media’s focus on Mrs. Obama’s search for schools for her two young daughters, her fashion sense and her pledge that her No. 1 job is “to be Mom.”

Traister bemoans the lack of curiosity about Michelle as a professional, successful, independent woman who is facing some major changes in how she spends her days. Certainly, leaving work that one enjoys is a big adjustment, and Ms. Obama's last job was a $300K/year post as a Vice President at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Nevertheless, as one commentator points out, unlike most women who leave work to be a trailing spouse, Ms. Obama's career won't suffer long-term consequences. Once her husband is no longer President, her time spent in the White House will be viewed as very valuable, and she will have her pick of jobs, among them partnership at the law firm of her choice.

So, fem legal theory alums, do you have any advice for Michelle?

Btw, as of today, I'm giving Michelle Obama her own label on the blog.

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