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Michelle Obama: Committed to Women’s Work

What Mrs. Obama has put on display, and perhaps “overexposed,” is her commitment to women’s work. The Michelle Obama who stood shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful people in Chicago will always be with us. Thanks to the Internet, she is only a couple of clicks away. The first lady who campaigns for families and children has managed to marry her powerful skills as an advocate with the demands of her latest roles of first mom and first wife.

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First Lady Michelle Obama greets marines following her remarks to 3,000 marines, soldiers, sailors, and military family members at Memorial Field House in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, April 13, 2011. The event was part of the launch of “Joining Forces,” a national initiative to support and honor America’s service members and their families. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

It’s a radical act—even feminist—in that she has become a champion of women and the work that is expected of us. Feminism traditionally upholds a women’s right to choose for herself in a variety of arenas. What Michelle Obama has done is make a choice out of no choice. She may not ever be able to go to Target again without drawing a crowd, but she has made her life as a spectacle an opportunity to advocate for two of the most neglected and unglamorous groups in this country today: veterans and obese children. (It should be noted that obesity disproportionately affects black and poor children, just as mental health issues and economic despair characterize the lives of many returning veterans.) Mrs. Obama’s role as an advocate for children has expanded, as she recently became very emotional during a speech on gun violence in Chicago during which she remembered Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who performed during the president’s inauguration ceremony and then was gunned down in a Chicago park days later.

In the long history of first ladies, Mrs. Obama is not necessarily bucking trend, she is reminding us that the traditional roles of women require hard work, just as her own recent performances are part of the job. It’s a job she didn’t ask for, and one that generates disconcerting degrees of passion from both her detractors and her admirers. But as she continues to put her unique signature on the role of first lady, we will continue to benefit from the lessons she teaches us about gender, race, and the politics of representation.

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