Not surprisingly, Barbara Bush said it most succinctly: “The first lady is going to be criticized no matter what she does.”
One needn’t prod Michelle Obama for confirmation — or most any other first lady in history. There is no “just right” in this, shall we say, “Goldilockean Proviso.” Anything is either too much or too little.
A review of first lady comments posted on The National First Ladies’ Library website — www.firstladies.org/biographies — further confirms the difficulties faced by the wives of presidents. Mrs. Obama is but the latest to the challenge. A common thread suggests that more than a few disliked the role but accepted it as a duty.
Mary Todd Lincoln, politically sophisticated and well read, left little to speculation: “I do not belong to the public; my character is wholly domestic, and the public have nothing to do with it.” Others further down the line were unapologetic in their contempt for the mixed blessing of first lady, including Bess Truman, who said: “We are not any one of us happy to be where we are but there’s nothing to be done about it except to do our best — and forget about the sacrifices and many unpleasant things that bob up.”
Thus, anyone who criticized Mrs. Obama for saying she sometimes fantasizes that she’ll “walk right out the front door and just keep walking” doesn’t know much about first lady history. They were invariably tough, smart women who sought to find a way to reconcile their own true selves with the demands of public expectation. Like Mrs. Obama, all longed for the privacy to just be oneself.
In recent years, as politics have become more broadly partisan and women have assumed more prominent roles, first ladies have become fairer game in the maelstrom we call the public square. Hillary Clinton infamously set off bonfires of inanities with her now innocuous-sounding remark that she was not “some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Or that she wasn’t one to stay home and bake cookies.
Au contraire, as it turns out. Hillary could teach Tammy a thing or two about family loyalty, and she was hardly the first to eschew the kitchen. Sarah Polk proclaimed in the mid-1800s: “If I get into the White House, I will neither keep house nor make butter.”
Mrs. Obama, though she holds a law degree from Harvard, has turned away from Clinton’s ambitious example and focused instead on the ultimate in domesticity — not just cooking but raising the food that goes to table. Her new cookbook, “American Grown,” features glossy photos and a personal diary of gardening in the city, albeit in the nation’s best yard with significant staff help.
But even such a noble quest — to make the nation healthier and more aware of nutrition — is not without controversy. Friday’s Washington Post featured comments from fans and critics of the first lady’s gardening platform. Some don’t like her suggestion that consumers buy locally, insisting that Big Agri feeds the world and is unjustly maligned. Undoubtedly, mass-produced food is a boon to the hungry, but buying a few tomatoes at the local farmer’s market is hardly an indictment of corn subsidies. Eating locally grown produce in season is a basic tenet of healthy eating, whether you’re a disciple of macrobiotics or California Cuisine.
Others are critical of Michelle Obama’s choice to focus on uber-domestic issues rather than directing her intellect and education on “more important” issues. Begging to differ, there is nothing more important than food — how we raise it, how we distribute it and how we consume it. At a time of rampant obesity, especially among children, nutrition should be a national priority.
Tracking first ladies through history is a tour of women’s development from disenfranchised chattel to champions of choice that also offers a glimpse into how conflicted we remain about women’s proper role. What upsets so many in Obama’s own political camp is that this first lady has so vividly chosen family over career, finding expression in the most elemental of endeavors — digging her hands into Mother Earth and offering nourishment to her young.
Such an explicit embrace of a traditional female role is nothing short of heresy to some. In fact, it is a brave stance by a wise woman whose priorities deserve to be celebrated. There will be plenty of time for career and Big Issues beyond the family table once the children are grown — a lesson best learned sooner than too late.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.