Yes it may be a stretch to call Michelle Obama “historical” (as in, she’s alive and hugely relevant), but I’m invoking my own executive privilege as YHWOTD president. Plus it’s timely. Plus no matter which way you slice it, Michelle Obama will certainly go down in history.
I was struck by this last fact as I watched Barack Obama take the stage for his election-night victory speech, accompanied by his ridiculously photogenic family: daughters Sasha and Malia, getting older every day, and wife Michelle. They waved to the audience; they turned around and waved to the back audience (you know, those randos who sit behind the stage and look awkward during speeches); they hugged and kissed; and then Michelle and the young ‘uns took off to leave the President to his important man task.
It struck me because, more than any other First Lady in recent memory, it seemed a crime that this was the only part she got to play. Just as it struck me during the debates when I would exclaim with delight over Michelle’s fabulous outfit choices, and then I would immediately feel conflicted about how this was all I had to say about Michelle.
Not that I’m denying her role as fashion icon—she certainly is one. But she’s also an incredibly accomplished woman, at least as accomplished as her husband: before Barack’s political career skyrocketed, she attended Princeton and Harvard Law School and worked several prestigious law jobs in Chicago. What’s more, she is constantly upping the ante about what it means to be a First Lady, running campaigns to promote healthier eating, making countless media appearances, and killing it at the Democratic National Convention with a pitch-perfect speech supporting her husband’s reelection.
Of course, Michelle is not the first First Lady to make that role more than a piece of set decoration in pretty dresses giving domestic tours of the White House. Notable precursors like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton (herself a potential President—once and again?) have undoubtedly paved the way for proactive Presidential spouses like Mrs. Obama. Yet the very persistence of the office of First Lady reminds us that we’re still living politically in a man’s world (as if the countless “definitions of rape” debacle during election season weren’t reminder enough!). When will there be a First Man? (First Gentleman? First Husband? First Guy?) When will the whole idea of a “First Lady” stop seeming so patronizing? When will a family walk out onto a stage on election night, and the wife-slash-female-partner will stay?
In the meantime, kudos to Michelle Obama for being a strong, empowered, incredible role model who continues to make her husband look good. And for reminding us—every time she has to watch silently from the sidelines—that there’s still work to do.