Michelle Obama rocked the house last night. I’ve been obsessing about “you didn’t build that,” and I’ve gone from taking umbrage to recognizing that there was a whiff of hectoring impatience in the president’s unedited words. Michelle, after weaving the facts of her and her husband’s family history into a tapestry of striving, offered this perfect gloss: “Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much. They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did ... in fact, they admired it.” Right, achieve and aspire your heart out, America.
The words family and sacrifice showed up over and over again in Michelle’s text. The words career and breadwinner didn’t. Noreen Malone points out that Michelle didn’t even make the general nod to mothers who “work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work” that Ann Romney did. Much less mention her own years of paid work—pay that was higher than her husband’s. She did, though, make time for the struggles with workplace discrimination of Barack Obama’s grandmother and Lilly Ledbetter, another top speaker last night. “Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank, and she moved quickly up the ranks, but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling,” Michelle said. And she singled out the signing of the law that’s named after Ledbetter as one of her husband’s proud accomplishments.
Maybe that’s all the signaling that feminists like me can ask for. I wonder, though. What about all those single-mom voters—the swingles—who are tilting Obama’s way but include some undecideds. I wish Michelle had spared a sentence or two for them. That would have updated her recognition of the more traditional problem of earning as much as the man working beside you.
I am still trying to make my peace with Michelle’s culminating “mom-in-chief” line. The underlying sentiment is unassailable: “My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.” But 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? Don’t tell me that Michelle isn’t a working woman, past or present: I’m with Alyssa Rosenberg, let’s recognize that first lady comes with real responsibilities and allocate a salary for it. I’m not expecting Michelle to say that, but I do wish she could put a bit of her political capital into making her own glittering professional resume part of the story she tells about herself and her family. Doesn’t she want Malia and Sasha to know that she stands behind her own professional achievement as well as their father’s? I like Noreen’s idea that Michelle, with her push-ups montage, stands for “muscular mom-ism.” But I don’t think that has to be all she’s about, not in light of the realities of work in this country or the demographics of this election.
Maybe that’s her next big speech—or maybe it’s what we’d get to hear from her if the Obamas stay in the White House. I can keep hoping.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.