What would Michelle Obama do?

How can a woman maintain a separate identity -- and career -- while living up to our expectations for a first lady?

Published February 15, 2008 1:51AM (EST)

The New York Times just did a profile of Michelle Obama that -- like many articles about her -- paints the potential first lady as smart, strong-willed, and tough-as-nails.

I thought the piece was interesting in its own right, but it got me thinking about the bigger question of the challenges that will be faced by 21st century first ladies. For most of America's history, the public role of the first lady has been a pretty quiet one. You advocate on behalf of causes that no one can really argue against, like literacy or education, you play hostess and, most important, you stand by your man. But what happens if you want to have your own life? Is there a way for a first lady to live up to America's expectations and aggressively pursue her own career?

Some people might say that Hillary Clinton did this, standing by Bill while at the same time trying to enact policy changes. But I'm not talking about women with political ambitions -- I think it's unlikely we'll have another first lady with her eye on the presidency itself. I'm talking about a first lady who is career-minded in a non-political way -- like, for example, Michelle Obama. While she'll admit to being very competitive, Obama also claims to dislike politics and, according to the Times, says she wouldn't be supportive of another presidential run in 2012 if it doesn't work out this time around. But if Barack wins the White House, how does that affect what Michelle can do with her own life? She already quit her position as a hospital executive on Jan. 1 and is now traveling the country on behalf of her husband -- and if he wins, her life as first lady would make it difficult, if not impossible, for her to go back to her former career.

I'm projecting here, but I would think that it would be extremely tough for someone as ambitious and accomplished as Michelle Obama to play the traditional role of first lady, or be content to wield her influence in private, à la Abigail Adams. If she followed Hillary's lead and tried to use her first lady prestige to enact policy change, she'd get criticized, like Hillary, for overstepping her boundaries. If she tried to actively pursue a career outside of the White House, on the other hand, she would be failing to live up to her traditional first lady duties -- and I'm going to guess that America wouldn't like that too much, either. (We're not France, after all, where the president and his wife can divorce, he can marry a former model, and no one seems to blink an eye.) So what choice does that leave her?

If Barack gets elected, it'll be interesting to see how Michelle navigates her role. I imagine she'll be scrutinized and criticized -- and it makes me think, depressingly enough, that the best way to help first ladies of the future gain freedom to live their own lives would be to have a first gentleman for a change (preferably someone with a little less baggage than Bill). I doubt that a man ambitious enough to be married to the president of the United States would be content to sit on the sidelines, abandoning his previous life to play backup for his wife. His reluctance might force America to redefine what it means to be first spouse -- and help first ladies of the future. Here's hoping, though, that we can do it for ourselves.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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