America’s First Lady was recently caught picking pumpkins in the White House garden for a Halloween photo-op as her husband charged off on a campaign to save a Democrat downslide in the US Senate. But that, apparently, is what powerful women do.
At least according to the International finance magazine Forbes, which recently published its 2010 list of the ‘Most Powerful Women in the world.’ Topping this year’s power 100, resplendent in a nostalgic Jackie Kennedy inspired black dress complete with white pearls and her very own famous sculpted arms was an unexpected winner: Mrs Michelle Obama.
Of all the successful, influential female achievers it could have picked to name as the most powerful woman in the world, why did Forbes see it fit to honour someone whose primary job is, well let’s face it — playing wifey?
This is not to disparage women who choose to stay at home to look after their children, or indeed belittle Mrs Obama’s ceremonial role as a presidential partner. Agreed, Michelle Obama is no airhead even if she is in the habit of self-effacingly describing herself primarily as “Malia and Sasha’s mom.” She is an Ivy League trained lawyer and — as women in her position often are — a vociferous champion of First Lady-like causes. In her case, green initiatives and the fight against childhood obesity.
All very well for a First Lady but hardly a glowing CV when pitching for First Woman. That the American President’s wife pips heads of state like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and global entrepreneurs such as Kraft Foods boss Irene Rosenfield at the post is downright insulting to all women.
Forbes claims that Mrs Obama has “given a new generation of girls and women around the world a role model.” If girls around the world did indeed follow Mrs Obama’s example, they might study at Harvard only to abandon their careers, hope to marry a president and look picture perfect in designer dresses. How does that elevate her over someone like, say Hillary Clinton, who emerged from her husband’s shadow to make a spirited bid for the Democrat Presidential nomination and finally took on the challenging job of the US Secretary of State?
Michelle Obama’s first appearance on the list was in 2009 at a more convincing number 40. The entry is telling: “Michelle has avoided any major policy speeches… (and) has garnered the most publicity for her fashion sense… a book on the subject has already been written, Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion.” That pretty much says it all.
What exactly has Mrs Obama done in the 12 months since that was published to warrant such an acrobatic vault from clothes-horse to the world’s most influential woman? Obviously nothing that would qualify her inclusion in Forbes’ generic 100 Most Powerful People list, which only features two women: Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet she supersedes both of them in the gender-specific list.
The answer is actually simpler than one may think. Forbes is an old-fashioned US-centric men’s publication that still believes it is perfectly valid to selectively confuse fame with power and populate a Powerful Women’s list with pop stars, television presenters and a wife, while keeping its male-dominated Powerful People’s List exclusively political.
Even if one overlooks the magazine’s blatantly gendered criteria, can one forgive it for regurgitating the outdated power-behind-the-throne myth? (Not that there a smidgeon of evidence that Michelle Obama is particularly involved in her husband’s policy decisions). There is nothing intrinsic in Michelle Obama’s claim to fame. Much as I detest Sarah Palin’s roguish opportunism, her incessant tea-partying and successful power-brokering in the Republican primaries establish her as a woman of real power in a way Michelle Obama simply cannot rival. That her knowledge of foreign policy is pea-sized is incidental.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2010.