Michelle Obama is No Angry Black Woman

Image courtesy Stephanie Himel-Nelson

Why are Americans so afraid of strong women? That we are, in fact, afraid is the only conclusion I can draw from the flap over the new book on President Obama and the reported “conflicts” between First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s staff.

Now, we all know that even among groups of motivated people working toward a common goal, differences of opinion and personality conflicts can happen. That’s not really newsworthy, in my opinion. But with the release of  “The Obamas” by Jodi Kantor and the accompanying reviews, I’ve seen inflammatory headlines about an “angry black woman” and mentions of Mrs. Obama “meddling” in policy. All because everyone is shocked that Mrs. Obama has an agenda as First Lady and has apparently influenced her husband’s administration. Wow. Shocking.

First, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mrs. Obama has policy goals.  Since even before her husband took office, Mrs. Obama made it clear that she intended to champion military families and to fight childhood obesity.  Mrs. Obama has been criticized by the political right for her Let’s Move campaign, accusing her of interfering in family choices. While most on the right haven’t managed to find a way to criticize Mrs. Obama’s support of military families, that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been quietly moving to influence policy in that area.  Or not so quietly.

In May 2010, Mrs. Obama announced that the President had directed the National Security Staff to lead a 90-day review to develop a federal, government-wide effort to support military families and veterans.  A report followed in January of 2011, detailing more than 50 initiatives for military families and veterans across the executive branch, ranging from Housing and Urban Development working to eliminate veteran homelessness to a consumer protection program in the Department of Treasury to assist military families.

In April of 2011, the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden announced the Joining Forces campaign, an effort to involve not just government but individuals, communities, nonprofits, and businesses in the effort to support military families and veterans. Joining Forces is unique because it encourages public-private partnerships, recognizing that government cannot do everything, and the program brings together unlikely partners.  One of the most visible participants in Joining Forces has been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a sometimes vocal opponent of the Obama administration. Putting politics aside, and partnering with the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense, the chamber has been involved in a nationwide campaign to employee veterans and military spouses through its Hiring Our Heroes career fairs. As part of the First Lady’s Joining Forces program, the chamber has held more than 80 hiring fairs since the launch of the program in March of 2011.

In other words, Mrs. Obama has been quite visibly working to influence policy over the last three years. If we haven’t noticed, it’s because we haven’t been paying attention.

But setting aside the First Lady’s signature issues, why should we be surprised that Mrs. Obama has influence in other realms? Our opinions and beliefs develop from an early age based on our experiences, our family, and our friends. None of us is free from the influence of the people around us; I know I’m certainly not. My husband and I regularly discuss policy. He’s influenced me throughout our 16 year marriage and I know that I’ve influenced his political opinions as well. I can’t imagine a healthy marriage between two equals that doesn’t involve this sort of give and take. So why are we so surprised that a strong, intelligent woman like First Lady Michelle Obama influences her husband’s administration?

Frankly, I’d be more worried if she didn’t.

Guest contributor Stephanie Himel-Nelson is the shoe-obsessed writer of the blog Lawyer Mama. She is a recovering attorney and the communications director for a nonprofit supporting military families. Stephanie is a contributor to MOMocrats.com and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. Stephanie is also the host of The Mil Life, a WashingtonPost.com online chat about military family issues. She lives in Southeast Virginia with her family and way too many shoes. You can find Stephanie on Twitter as @lawyermama.

  • Excellent post, Stephanie! The “controversy” around Jodi Kantor’s book is mind-boggling to me.

  • Stephanie, it’s sad to me that anytime a woman is open and honest about her opinions in the public sphere, that she is somehow labeled in a way to diminish her. The word “bitch” gets used a lot, too, to describe women who are confident enough to say what they mean and challenge others when they disagree. Men get described as confident leaders — women usually get criticized in as “angry” and worse. I’m sad that Kantor’s book portrays Michelle Obama as a strong, confident woman not afraid to speak here mind when necessary, and that’s getting spun in the media this way.

  • Kristen

    The use of the phrase “angry black woman” was used by Mrs. Obama herself to describe how she was portrayed in Kantor’s book. It was an incredibly odd choice of words to self-describe when her actions simply appear to be that of a strong, opinionated spouse of a first world leader. From a PR standpoint, the WH’s response could not have been worse. Mrs. Obama did herself a disservice falling into that trap.

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