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spouses on the trail

Posted by pocochina on November 28, 2007

This article about Michelle Obama made me gasp with sadness.

Before I start, I want to be painfully clear about something:  There is no reason not to value the labor necessary for child care and housekeeping.  It is inexcusable.  This post is in no way meant to denigrate this work, no matter what the gender of the person performing that work.  I also think that the dynamics of this post apply to most if not all family dynamics in which presidential candidates take part; I’m generalizing from the Obamas’ experience partially because of the article, partially because I think Michelle Obama is a fascinating woman, and partially because this primary is different from all others before because of the presence of Senator Clinton.  I’m sure much of this is also applicable to a discussion of the Edwards family, but much more has been made of Elizabeth’s tragic illness than her recent career decisions, so I don’t know as much about her.  (I’m talking specifically about heterosexual partnerships because every presidential candidate I know of is/has been at least publicly heterosexual.)

It is one thing to see someone who genuinely – not every minute of the day, because that is unrealistic, no matter what the occupation – but deeply and genuinely chooses to take on some or all of childrearing responsibilities to the exclusion or near-exclusion of other types of labor.  It is difficult, it is valuable, and for many people, it is fulfilling.  This article (and WaPo has been rumored, in the past, to sometimes get things wrong, I don’t speak for Michelle Obama, J.D., and neither do they) emphatically does not paint a picture of one of those people.  They are clearly parents who love their children, spouses who love each other, and I don’t think there’s genuine malice or malcontent between them, any more so than any other married couple.

But this is a picture of a woman who relishes political work, who understands and loves the law, who thrives in the public sphere.  Again, I’m not valuing the public sphere over the private sphere (except, full disclosure, for my personal preference, if you told me my job was in the home I’d make you cry).  What I am saying is that always, but especially when someone shows clear talent for and need to be in the public sphere, she has every right to be there, and should not be pressured, directly or indirectly, to leave.

It’s especially heartwrenching because it looks like they had every intention of a modern, public-and-private, equitable relationship, by which I mean it was understood that both Obamas loved each other, their children, and their jobs, and expected a partnership which would allow them to be fulfilled on those fronts.  And they – well, let’s be honest, he – didn’t, in the end, seem to be able to withstand the societal pressure around traditional heterosexual marriages, in which the man does “whatever makes him happy” and the woman does unpaid reproductive labor, regardless of whether or not it makes her happy, and often alongside paid work, for which she is paid less than her partner.  Her happiness is expendable, his defines the family.  She was not happy with this arrangement.  She is not comfortable leaving work.  The courage it takes to speak publicly about these feelings is breathtaking, especially with the scrutiny that the marriages of presidential candidates (and particularly Democratic candidates, and especially Senator Obama because he is African-American, meaning that he must withstand a higher level of scrutiny for no other reason than that we live in a racist world).

The class differentiation – which I must admit, I don’t know anything about except for what I’ve just read in that article – is disturbing as well.  They are both brilliant and deeply deserving of any and all career success, but when he has lived his entire life with that expectation and she has not, and then she is the one giving up her career in the public spehere, that is indicative not just of an unequal heterosexual relationship, but also of class disparity at work, even among equally successful, educated partners.  And that’s disturbling.

I know, rationally, that Senator Obama’s positions are indicative of a general belief in equality, and his votes in the Senate establish a feminist-friendly record.  I know, factually, that a candidate’s marriage matters not at all when  regarding the way he is likely to act politically.  It is wrong to judge politicians on their marriages and not their records.


I am no longer convinced that equality between Americans is truly a principle the Senator holds.  I realize it is his policy position, and I am glad he heeds the Democratic platform on feminist issues.  But it looks now to me as if his self-interest does not just outweigh this issue most critical to me, but in fact actually eclipses his pro-feminist beliefs to the point that he does not understand the issue.  He either does not understand, or equally worryingly, actively does not care that the oppression of women is, in many instances, the direct outcome of decisions which are also deeply personal, frequently made between people who genuinely love each other.  There is a cumulative affect of these decisions, to the point where women are expected to make those decisions; we are punished simply for the anticipation that sometime in the future, we will make similar decisions.  I’m not arguing that oppression only comes from heterosexual marriage, or that it’s the sole source of patriarchy, but it viscerally affects many, many  women.  It is wrong to ignore the impact of these decisions, regardless of whether or not we make them.

And yes.  This is, in reasonable part, because in order to “prove” himself to white America, Senator Obama must present as “unthreatening,” traditionally-valued life as possible, and I do not mean to downplay the impact of racism in the political arena.  If he had a British hippie wife with a tongue piercing, yes, that would matter, more than it does for Kucinich, even if all other factors remained the same.

But the Obama family is only doing what all political families, especially liberal ones (what with their rampant destruction of the Sacred Family Unit and all) do, if to a degree which is unfair because of existing unfairness in the system.

Which is why Senator Clinton matters to this analysis.

Not all, or even the majority, of Clinton-hate comes from the situation I am about to describe, insofar as it’s possible to trace the origins of utter madness.  The Clintons are a working partnership (or, more accurately, openly a working partnership; there’s a long history of First Ladies being heavily involved behind the scenes).  In the 1990’s, HRC spoke – yes, from her position of great privilege as a white Christian educated middle-class thin able-bodied heterosexual woman, married to a man of similar situation – publicly and unapologetically about her career, her support of other women with a career, and the fact that she emphatically felt she belonged in the public sphere.  Though it makes perfect sense to this young, single graduate student, it clearly caused some incredible cognitive dissonance to some people, who want to think that they’re all egalitarian but think feminists should have stopped whining when we got the vote, because it’s too uncomfortable to examine the implications of a truly feminist society.

I do think the obsession with the Lewinsky scandal, while mostly a political play from a bitter, counterdemocratic, hypocritical Republican Congressional leadership team, was also due at least in part to hostility toward feminist thought.  See what happens when you don’t stand behind your man, ladies?  He won’t stand by you.  And if a man says he believes in equality, he’s just trying to get into someone else’s pants.

And the American right is continuing to burp, scratch its balls, and wonder why that bitch won’t bring it another beer.

So when Michelle Obama is on the road, campaigning for her husband, her words are evocative of the issues Hillary Clinton faced fifteen years ago.  Stunningly talented attorneys, with the most prestigious degrees intellect and determination can buy, who have to play an unfair game because our cultural and political system simply won’t have it another way.

And when, freed of his domestic responsibilities by female unpaid labor, the exact same sacrifice HRC made fifteen years ago, but to an even greater extent, he can say he’s the candidate of the future?  Of change?

I have trouble believing women are truly an equal part of that future.

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