By Yanan Wang
September 27, 2012
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama skipped the second grade. As a kid growing up on Chicago’s South Side, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother, Craig. Her father was a city pump operator who suffered from multiple sclerosis, her mother a secretary-turned-homemaker.
You would have learned a few of these facts if you heard her speech for the Democratic National Convention on September 4th. In her highly lauded public address, Obama spoke at length about both her husband’s upbringing and her own, emphasizing her belief in an America that would be better for her children in the same way that her father and President Obama’s grandmother envisioned an America that would be better for them. What she wove before the crowd at the DNC and the millions watching at home was a poignant story about two generations of two families fighting for “a fair chance at that great American Dream.” But there is a notable character missing from this touching portrait — its narrator.
To be fair, a lot is revealed about Michelle Obama in her speech. We find out that she was taken on dates by the President in a rusting car with a hole in its passenger side door. That she and her brother were able to attend college with student loans and grants. That her daughters “are still the heart of [her] heart and the center of [her] world.” What isn’t talked about is what happened to her in the time between graduating from Princeton University and becoming the mother of Sasha and Malia. If there were someone living overseas who watched the speech with no prior knowledge of the First Lady, they would have been led to believe that her career ended after college graduation.
For a speech that follows the arch of the great American journey from hardship to triumph, the absence of any mention of Michelle Obama’s own professional successes is striking. When she talks about the glass ceiling that prevents so many women, past and present, from moving ahead in their careers, she talks not about how she became the associate of a prominent Chicago law firm, but about how her grandmother-in-law’s job trajectory at a bank was stifled by her male counterparts: “And for years,” Obama said, “men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by.” There is a subtle parallel in the side note, for the President, too, was once just a man that Michelle Obama had trained.
Even though there were few mentions of the First Lady in the speech itself, the entire event felt like a performance, a debutante ball for the middle class that heralded the transformation of a once-reluctant political wife into one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful weapons. An Associated Press-GfK poll revealed that, as of the start of the Republican convention, she had an approval rating of 64% – higher than those of the President, Mitt Romney, Ann Romney, and either vice-presidential candidate. From the pre-speech video that showed Obama Dougie-ing it out with her daughters, to her walking on stage to Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied,” it is hard to deny that the First Lady exuded strength from start to finish.
The speech wasn’t without feminist undertones. Obama said, “So in the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political—they’re personal.” This echo of the 1960s feminist aphorism “the personal is political” was the basis on which her entire address was built. Each funny anecdote, personal analogy, and poignant case study served to reiterate the political divisions of the election without so much as uttering the word “law” or “conservative” or “Congress.”
Yet in the end, Michelle Obama’s speech was family-centric rather than women-centric or even American-centric. It was repeated again and again that today’s sacrifices were in the name of tomorrow’s children, children whom Obama seemed to assume every woman must want to have. “Our kids” are the ones who have the largest stake in this election, not us. As Americans, we are expected to say to ourselves, “I may not have a chance to fulfill my dreams, but maybe my children will; maybe my grandchildren will.” While this is surely a rebuttal to the Republicans’ stand for family values, it alienates those people who identify as neither spouses nor parents, who don’t want to think of their present as a sacrifice for the offspring of strangers. The family has long been regarded as the rock around which civilization is built, but a singular regard for the family as the motivation for any American success is as likely to alienate as it is to assemble. We may all be the child of somebody, but not everybody dreams of being “mom-in-chief.”
Yanan Wang is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.