Michelle Obama comes to global prominence bearing the weight of expectations that she’ll be every woman’s role model, representing every mother of young children and every professional trying to balance career and family.
There’ll be another burden, too: Beginning with next week’s inaugural ceremonies, everything about the nation’s first black first lady will be dissected, from her policy positions to her parenting to her wardrobe.
Eleanor Roosevelt introduced the notion of first lady as activist; Jacqueline Kennedy brought a sense of high fashion; Nancy Reagan spoke out against drugs; Hillary Clinton came in as a policy maker attempting to overhaul health care.
But none of them broke a barrier as formidable as does Obama: the barrier of race.
“Is there an extra burden?” said Valerie Jarrett, who will serve US president-elect Barack Obama as a senior White House adviser and has known the Obamas professionally and personally for 17 years.
“Yeah, there is. But Michelle is a pragmatist” who “understood that going into this,” Jarrett said during an interview in her Chicago office last week.
A cautious agenda reflects this practical sense. Jarrett said the new first lady would focus on being an advocate for military families, raising awareness for work-family balance and promoting volunteerism.
Obama, the subject of at least four biographies, may try to do the opposite of Clinton, first cultivating a softer image and then playing a more active role in the administration, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of a book called How Obama Won.
“It’s going to take a huge amount of adjustment on behalf of the country to get used to the sight of a black woman as first lady,” he said.
In part that is because so few black women have held high office, and in the civil rights movement most were behind-the-scenes participants.
“For some people, it will be kind of a culture shock,” said Paul Taylor, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Most first ladies have played conventional roles, serving as hosts to the White House, making ceremonial appearances and presiding over state dinners.
“As much progress as women have made in electoral politics, the role of first lady has evolved more slowly,” said Quinetta Roberson, a Villanova School of Business scholar who co-authored a study about Michelle Obama.
“To the extent that first ladies fail to conform to traditional gender roles, the more criticism they tend to get from the media and public,” said Roberson.
In his book The President’s Wives, Robert P. Watson categorizes first ladies on a scale from non-partners to full partners. He argues that only Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter and Clinton obtained full partnership.
The risks are significant for Obama. The daughter of a city pump operator and a secretary from the South Side of Chicago, the 44-year-old corporate lawyer attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School.