US: A strong feminine influence behind the Barack Obama victory the peace-loving world applauds
London ~~ November 6, 2008
The model of modern masculinity whose guiding force is women
The feminine influence that have shaped Barack Obama’s outlook
By Janice Turner
No US president grew up owing a bigger debt to women, yet no candidate divided them more. Barack Obama’s first campaign challenge was to win forgiveness for shelving hopes for a woman president and insulting 13 million Hillary Clinton supporters by not choosing her as running-mate. For being, as a Democratic chairman in Ohio put it, “yet another slick young guy who steals the promotion from the better-qualified woman”.
At first it looked as if the Clinton rage would never abate, that her supporters would be lured by the Republicans’ decoy duck, Sarah Palin, who looked like a working mom and spoke like one too. So how did Mr Obama manage to win over America’s women?
There’s the economy, stupid, but Mr Obama’s appeal centres on him appearing to be the latest model of modern masculinity: calm, consensual and gracious, qualities that are as desirable in a husband and father as in a president (he reads Harry Potter to his daughters and takes out the rubbish when he’s home). As women voters got to know him, he accumulated goodwill from having an unusually equal – and manifestly loving – marriage with a strong and impressive wife.
Mr Obama has acknowledged in speeches and memoirs his debt to his womenfolk: they were resourceful, capable and unsinkable while the men in his life were flaky, fragile and absent.
In Dreams from My Father he tells of his late mother, Ann, a freethinking and fearless white woman from Kansas who married a black man from Kenya. Barely two years into the marriage, she was left to raise Mr Obama alone, yet she returned to college, studied for an anthropology degree and remarried, to an Indonesian student whom she followed to Jakarta with her son. She worked in Asia running microfinance projects that allowed women to become self-sufficient. “She was very clear that the best indicator of how a country is going to develop is how it treats its women and whether it educates its girls,” Mr Obama recalls.
Nonetheless, she fretted that Indonesian schools were inadequate and dragged her son from bed at 4am to teach him English for three hours before school. And his moral education consumed her too. “If you want to grow into a human being,” she would say to him, “you’re going to need some values.”
Rather than struggle alone, she sent her son back to live with her parents in Hawaii. Mr Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, known as Toot, raised him in his teenage years and was the backbone of the family. She struggled through sexism to become the first woman vice-president at her local bank and out-earned her husband at a time when that meant only shame. “So long as you kids do well,” she told Mr Obama, “that’s all that matters.”
Mr Obama says that his wife, Michelle, reminds him of Toot “in her eminent practicality and Midwestern attitudes”. Certainly, she out-earned him for a time in her job as a vice-president of the University of Chicago Medical Centre, providing financial security while he wrote books and pursued political ambitions. Moreover, her upbringing in a close and conventional family gave him a stability he had never known. This was a woman not content to suspend her own dreams for any man. In The Audacity of Hope, Mr Obama recalls his wife being angry at his absences because of his work at the Senate: “ ‘You only think about yourself’, she would tell me. ‘I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone’. ”
That she sought to remodel the role of candidate’s spouse from the traditional one of blind adoration to that of an equal partner made her a lightning rod for his enemies. She was dubbed his “bitter half”, unpatriotic, an angry black separatist for speaking on education and injustice, rather than the cosier topics considered appropriate in a potential First Lady. Yet she refused to dissemble, to fake a favourite cookie recipe, to be less than herself – mischievous, sarcastic, unguarded, vocal, sometimes stern. And she won female admiration for her toned figure, which she dresses with innate style, and her warmth and informality, which leavened her formidable presence.
Conflicts Mr Obama sees in his own wife have led him to promote policies supporting work-life balance. “Michelle is like a lot of women of her generation in that she has carried within herself two very powerful ideas: one, that she’s as smart as any man, on the other hand, she loves being a mother,” he has said. “We have a society that doesn’t really provide a lot of support for women in those roles. We don’t provide the kind of maternity and paternity leave that other countries do.”
Uninterested in political power herself, Mrs Obama made it her task to humanise her husband, to put Middle America at ease with a black president. Her quips about his morning breath, messy ways and how he once swanned out leaving her to mop up an overflowing toilet, brought accusations of oversharing, even of demeaning him.
But Mrs Obama also exposed the narrative of a marriage, “a young couple just a few years out of debt”, as she put it, a husband and wife negotiating, patchworking childcare, getting through with humour and affection. And this echoed the lives of women in America.