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Becoming Unbecoming

The role of First Lady diminishes strong women

Now that she is no longer presiding over the East Wing in the White House, Michelle Obama is grateful for the little things. One of them is toast, or rather toast she makes herself. As she recounts in her mega best-selling memoir, Becoming, nothing feels more liberating than tiptoeing to the kitchen of her own home and making toast, specifically cheese toast. It is a relief, she notes, to not have someone offer to make it for her, and a delight to walk to her back porch and eat it, alone and in shorts and with the Secret Service a hundred yards away.

It is an endearing story, with its Oprah-endorsed (she told the story on Oprah’s “SuperSoul Conversations” podcast) appeal underscoring the everyone-loves-her charisma of the most admired woman in America. There is lots more of the same in Becoming; it is laden with curated-for-cuteness interludes. Indeed, sometimes you can almost hear the collective gasps of an invisible Oprah audience rise up from the page: they’re there when she tells of Barack staring at the ceiling one night in bed during their courtship and admitting he was thinking about “income inequality”; they cheer, too, when Michelle recounts how the couple was applauded by diners at a restaurant in New York when they went on a presidential date night; and they hem with smug approval when Michelle talks of laying down the law over family dinnertime at the East Wing regardless of what was going down at the West Wing.

There is nothing wrong about writing a book designed to please Oprah audiences; the office of First Lady has, over the decades, been a roost of soft-celebrity interlaced with doses of middle-class wifely virtue, the venue, so to speak, for a very American kind of royalty. Popularity is the job requirement, and the First Lady wins it by performing with convincing devotion the job of wife and mother that landed her there in the first place. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably one of the most rebellious of First Ladies, had to bend to this demand in some way, obediently resigning from her position at the Democratic National Committee and promising not to air her political views in any future magazine articles. Wifely devotion and deliberate de-politicization appear to be de rigueur, then and now, so why should Michelle Obama deign to be any different?

Except that she is different. Becoming is (or at least intends to be) a story about evolution, of a woman transforming from what she was into what she is: America’s most recently recused first wife and mother-in-chief. The “becoming” is supposed to be a gladdening one, the “office” of First Lady being the pinnacle whose habitation endows its occupant with a sort of wisdom about the world, about the domestic side of America’s castle, the internal planning of balls and state dinners, the selection of a worthy and politically neutered cause behind which to throw one’s public energies. Most do not see the tragedy in this, a life of veneration and honor, of celebrity and its eventual largesse, of experiences that are the sole venue of a tiny handful, even if it is poised on the basis of marriage to the world’s most powerful man.

Her job becomes ensuring that the domestic half of Barack’s life sails smoothly along as he reaches ever higher on the political ladder. There is a cost to this, and Michelle pays it.

There is a pitiable part of it all, however, and Michelle Obama exemplifies it in a way that none other, not Eleanor Roosevelt and not even Hillary Clinton, have before. As the honesty and candor of Becoming attest (they do come through despite the careful curatorial efforts that define most celebrity memoir), here was a woman formidable in her own right, a woman who rose not by charm and swagger but by hard work, a dogged and devoted kind of hard work. Here was a woman who was not the genius, painting the classroom in bold colors of brilliance, but the student who did all the assignments, completed everything she was supposed to, a student who planned and prepared and thought ahead. (In one clever ploy to make the bus ride to her magnet high school in Chicago more productive, Michelle would leave early, take a bus in the other direction and then change to the regular bus before it hit the stops where seats were gobbled up.) When a diffident school counselor tells her she isn’t “Princeton material,” she silently vows “I’ll show you.”

She does show her and everyone else who may have underestimated her. She meets Barack, all swagger and cool, the man who, in her words, could live in the ocean while she grabbed for the boat. The first time she kisses him, “everything felt clear.” Her job becomes ensuring that the domestic half of Barack’s life sails smoothly along as he reaches ever higher on the political ladder. There is a cost to this, and Michelle pays it. The most striking moment of the book comes not in the baby-birthing and post-White House toast-making but on page 210, when Michelle confesses that in order to permit Barack “the freedom to shape and pursue his dreams” and to also be there for her girls, she “had numbed myself somewhat to my ambition, stepping back in moments when I’d normally step forward.”

If the fight for the Michelle part of Michelle Obama was in her until that moment, it is almost entirely absent in the rest of the book, whose denouement faithfully follows the trajectory of political wife: protecting her cubs and defending her husband from the intrusions, persecutions, and obtrusions of eventually becoming America’s first family. In the scripted and secured sphere of the White House, adventure constitutes escaping the bubble for a renegade trip to Target in disguise (she gets Oil of Olay Facewash and a card for Barack).

The stories and quips of what Michelle Obama gains at the cost of her tamped down ambitions are interesting, but they do not answer the question that is left languishing on or around page 200: Who would she have become if she had not been so completely absorbed into a man’s plan? Then there is the other niggling question, its blame to be pinned not on Michelle herself but rather on what she as the first African American First Lady was required to become to be palatable to an American public—a woman who wears pretty gowns and sequined boots and tends to her children and can crack the occasional joke about the most powerful man in the world.

Being a First Wife, even a meddlesome one who dabbled in the policy and politics of her husband, appears to be a life sentence.

Indeed, Michelle Obama’s predecessors, even those who did not have the heavy burden of modeling the perfection required of the first African American First Lady, faced disapproval if they were seen as “unbecoming.” When Bess Truman replaced Eleanor Roosevelt, one newspaper columnist tartly observed, “Mrs. Truman has been a great tonic for that very large segment of the population who got good and tired of her predecessor climbing flagpoles, scrambling down into zinc mines, and turning a dollar wherever she could by cashing in on her White House connections.” That taint of White House connections glared out at one and all in Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. A First Lady, it would seem, was not permitted to evolve from the wife- and mother-in-chief into the Chief Executive. Being a First Wife, even a meddlesome one who dabbled in the policy and politics of her husband, appears to be a life sentence.

Reading the engaging and well-told life story of a First Lady, then, cannot but feel a bit like reading an obituary. This is particularly true when the woman is Michelle Obama, a woman who undoubtedly had potential that could not be realized within the constraints of the choices she made. Feeling this way is less a feminist preference for one set of choices for another, and more of an exposition of how the gendered arrangements of President and First Lady, East and West Wing, impose suffocating constraints on the women who occupy this role.

The question of when America will elect a female president is on the tip of every tongue as the country begins its march to the next election. One institutional obstacle often left out of discussions of this possibility is how the office of the First Lady, which situates women as perpetual helpers, neutered of their political identities, devoted to the domestic, the fashionable, the relatable, presents a lingering obstacle to a woman at the helm. It may even be that until the office of First Lady, with its attached party-giving and dinner-arranging, ceases to exist, America will never be able to envision anything beyond the gendered division between the East and West wings. Becoming is one excursion into this question, served up by an honest and brave woman who paid a heavy price for the office of First Wife.