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Americans are losing a first lady who told men to “be better” and a president who listened

She flipped the narrative about gender equality.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House January 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Michelle Obama is the “new face of feminism.” That’s according to the results of a new poll by PerryUndem Research, in which 47 percent of respondents said she “represents feminism today,” putting her at the top of the list of 14 women including Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and Beyoncé.

It’s a victory over the judgments of those who, in the early years of the Obama administration, questioned her feminist credentials, scoffing at her focus on gardening and expressing disappointed at the Princeton and Harvard grad’s temporary embrace of the role of “mom-in-chief.”

But Obama has done something even more powerful than gain and maintain the approval of the public. She’s used her post at the White House to strike a very different tone in the conversation about gender equality. She’s shrugged off the scrutiny of her own feminist credentials, asking not, “Am I good enough as a woman?” but, “What do men need to do better?” — and seemingly led the way for her husband, President Obama, to do the same.

Michelle Obama’s feminism was scrutinized from day one — but she never gave into self-doubt or self-flagellation

In response to Jodi Kantor’s 2009 profile of the Obamas’ marriage for the New York Times, a reader wrote in to an online chat, “Can someone explain to me in what ways is the Obama marriage ‘modern’? It seems completely conventional to me, with both Barack and Michelle playing traditional gender roles.” The comment went on to point out that Michelle focused on “fashion, gardening, volunteering, re-decorating, organizing social nights, and appearing on magazine covers,” while Barack focused on more serious issues.

On that topic, Obama simply told Kantor that the equality of a partnership, in her view, “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two.”

But the scrutiny of her feminist credentials continued. In 2013, the Washington Posts Lonnae O'Neal Parker reported that feminists were “split by her work,” with some still expressing disappointment at the areas that she seemed to place her focus:

“Are fashion and body-toning tips all we can expect from one of the most highly educated First Ladies in history?” asked author Leslie Morgan Steiner in an online column last January. She said she’d “read enough bland dogma on home-grown vegetables and aerobic exercise to last me several lifetimes.”

Steiner contended Obama probably had little leeway. “I’m sure there is immense pressure — from political advisors, the black community, her husband, the watching world — to play her role as First Black Lady on the safe side.”

Feminist discontent with the first lady spiked again last summer at the Democratic National Convention, after she called her daughters “the heart of my heart and the center of my world.” She then repeated her feminist crazy-maker: “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’”

“Why does mom-in-chief have to be the most important thing this strong, vibrant woman tells us about herself as she flexes the strange but considerable power of the office of first lady?” Emily Bazelon asked on Slate.com.

The Post pointed out that many minority feminists and writers of color saw things differently. After all, as Parker wrote, “By necessity and by choice, a majority of black women have been working outside the home at least since the census began keeping track of their labor in 1972. There has never been a national effort to keep black women at home, caring sweetly for their children. They have always worked, and their work has never been a separate thing from their mothering.”

But while others debated Obama, she neither became defensive nor changed her priorities in response to her critics. Instead, she seemed to steadily live the way she chose: still focusing on that garden, the anti-obesity initiative, and more: launching “Let Girls Learn,” an initiative aimed at helping adolescent girls attain a quality education, hosting events specifically celebrating African-American girls and women during Black History Month, giving a headline-grabbing, powerful address at the Democratic National Convention and becoming widely regarded as Hillary Clinton’s most influential surrogate. Her condemnation of then-candidate Donald Trump’s commentary about women and daily assaults on the dignity of women grabbed the entire nation’s attention. In the meantime, she took her daughters to Beyoncé concerts and did Carpool Karaoke.

Subtly, though, through all this, she has insisted on being herself and ignoring the question of whether she was living up to anyone else’s feminist ideals. And at a moment when she had reached the highest approval she had earned, she did something powerful: She shifted the focus of the gender equality conversation to men. Her message: “Be better.”

“Be better at everything,” she said in a conversation with Oprah at the United States of Women summit in June 2016. “Be better fathers. Good lord, just being good fathers who love your daughters and are providing a solid example of what it means to be a good man in the world, showing them what it feels like to be loved. That is the greatest gift that the men in my life gave to me.”

She made it clear that she was talking to all men, continuing:

Men can be better husbands, which is — be a part of your family’s life. Do the dishes. Don’t babysit your children. You don’t babysit your own children. Be engaged. Don’t just think going to work and coming home makes you a man. Being a father, being engaged, all that stuff is important. Be a better employer. When you are sitting at a seat of power at a table of any kind and you look around you just see you, it’s just you and a bunch of men around a table, on a golf course, making deals, and you allow that to happen, and you’re OK with that — be better.”

When it came to gender equality, the president echoed her message to men

Just a couple of months later, President Barack Obama’s echoed Michelle’s sentiments in an essay titled “Why I’m a feminist” for Glamour magazine in August. He didn’t pass judgment on which goals and dreams of women deserved support, or what kinds of women deserved men’s support, but rather explained how he was in a continuous process of self-reflection — often inspired by his wife:

I’ve seen how Michelle has balanced the demands of a busy career and raising a family. Like many working mothers, she worried about the expectations and judgments of how she should handle the trade-offs, knowing that few people would question my choices. And the reality was that when our girls were young, I was often away from home serving in the state legislature, while also juggling my teaching responsibilities as a law professor. I can look back now and see that, while I helped out, it was usually on my schedule and on my terms. The burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle.

As Michelle might put it, he decided to do better. And he repeated the shift in perspective she had introduced. This wasn’t about just celebrating or affirming women, but insisting that his gender should improve — from changing attitudes to avoiding stereotypes to taking responsibility for equity in relationships:

So we need to break through these limitations. We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.

We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women.

We need to keep changing the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers. We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace—unless you’re a woman. Then you’re being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back. ...

It is absolutely men’s responsibility to fight sexism too. And as spouses and partners and boyfriends, we need to work hard and be deliberate about creating truly equal relationships.

The first lady’s insistence that men take responsibility will likely be missed without the Obamas in the White House

Michelle Obama’s subtle shift of the conversation coming from the White House — from “How can a woman be a good feminist?” to “When will men step it up?” — was powerful, and all signs indicate that it will end with the conclusion of the Obama administration.

Aside from the obvious differences between the Obamas and the Trumps in terms of surface-level indicators of the equality of their partnerships — age, education, and career experience — Melania Trump does not appear to have any expectations for her husband when it comes to feminism or becoming more respectful or supportive of her or any other women.

Take this excerpt from her interview with CNN in October, in the wake of the leaked Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted that he was so rich and famous he could grab women by the genitals without their consent: "No. No, that's why I was surprised, because I said like I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private," she said. "I heard many different stuff — boys talk. The boys, the way they talk when they grow up and they want to sometimes show each other, 'Oh, this and that' and talking about the girls. But yes, I was surprised, of course.

She added that she felt her husband was “egged on” by Access Hollywood host Billy Bush to say “dirty and bad stuff.”

Her reaction was described as an excuse by some and a denial by others. Whatever it was, it was clear that it did not occur to her that her husband, or other men responsible for perpetuating misogyny and inequality, could or should “do better.”

“So the work continues,” Michelle Obama remarked to Oprah in June. “And for all the young women in this room, all the young men, we can never be complacent. Because we have seen in recent times how quickly things can be taken away if we aren’t vigilant, if we don’t know our history, if we don’t continue the work.”

That work will have to continue from outside the White House. But if Obama’s history is any indication, she won’t let anyone else tell her how it should be done — she never has.

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