Reconsidering Michelle Obama

Perhaps I’ve been too hard on Michelle Obama.

I criticized her in an earlier post for making childhood obesity her cause instead of something more “earth-shattering.” But today I ran across some of her recent comments about the issue that show that she realizes there’s more to the problem than our children’s inactivity. (Her campaign is called “Let’s Move.”) This is from an opinion essay on CNN.com by Roland Martin:

“The crisis that we’re facing around childhood obesity hits everything,” Obama said. “It’s about education, what our kids are learning about nutrition in the schools, the quality of the food in the schools. It’s about our neighborhood development. How are neighborhoods designed?

“Are our kids — do they have access to safe places to play? Are we structuring communities in a way that facilitates healthy living? Are there accessible and affordable healthy foods in our communities? And it’s about economic opportunity as well, because if folks can’t afford to put food on the table, then they’re eating what they can.

“So this is one of those issues that requires us to talk about a little bit of everything. And it makes us look at ourselves a little more closely and it makes us look at the broader society.” [Italics mine.]

On the “Let’s Move” campaign’s website, there are sections aimed at elected officials and community leaders about how to make healthy food affordable and accessible in areas that are predominantly low-income and underserved by food markets. Granted, the website doesn’t promote this aspect of the problem as much as it does the importance of healthy eating and physical activity, but at least it’s mentioned. For example:

Food insecurity and hunger among children is widespread.  A recent USDA report showed that in 2008, an estimated 49 million people, including 17 million children, lived in households that experienced hunger multiple times throughout the year.

I said in my post that I’d rather see a campaign that gets food to hungry children than one that takes it away from overfed ones. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both.

Visit Share Our Strength for more about childhood hunger.

Go to this USDA Food Environment Atlas to learn more about food accessibility where you live.

The Wife Dilemma, Part Two

There’s an old saying (no one seems to know who said it first) that “behind every great man is a good woman.” During the late ’60s that was amended by feminists to: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” I like that better. The first version seems to imply that great men are successful when their women are good wives. The second recognizes that “even” wives have skills and talents that go unrecognized because of our society’s prejudice against women in general and wives in particular.

I myself was a minister’s wife for ten years. The ministry is a little more accepting of the wife having her own accomplishments, if only because churches like to hire “two for the price of one.” Minister’s wives are expected to be just as active in the church as their husbands. But no church I know of would ever accept the wife as a replacement for the husband. She is seen as only an adjunct.

Part of the reason for that is because a minister has to be ordained to serve in a ministerial role in most churches. But the truth is, I could have done everything my husband could do except officiate at weddings. (I sang at them, though). When he was going through seminary, I read his books and helped him with projects and papers (although he would deny the latter). I helped him hone his sermons. I taught Bible Studies, helped out in the church office, worked with the youth group and directed the children’s choir. Later on, after our divorce, I became a certified lay speaker and preached on several occasions. But should I try to use any of these accomplishments to beef up a resumé, forget it. It’s as if I spent ten years doing nothing.

The feminist movement doesn’t have a good record when it comes to fighting for housewives’ rights. It’s as if feminists themselves agree that anything a woman does in the home isn’t worth all that much. Oh, you’ll hear feminists say that what a woman does in the home is as important as what she does out of the home, but their words sound hollow. One reason why many women have become disenchanted with feminism is because it doesn’t attach value to anything but paid work. A woman isn’t considered truly liberated unless she has her own job or career.

I say that women who are married and/or stay home should be considered just as liberated, if that is their choice. Feminists should be demanding more respect for women who are wives or homemakers. They should be pushing for legislation that recognizes that a homemaker’s contribution to a marriage is just as valuable as her husband’s and should be compensated in some way.

One thing this means is getting credit for Social Security benefits based on her own record of working in the home. After all, the things a wife does to support her husband (like entertaining, raising his children, keeping his house, etc.) would have to be paid for if she wasn’t there to do them.

It also makes me crazy when a mother isn’t considered gainfully employed when she stays home with her kids. Many women who were “stay-at-home mothers” (SAHMs) are forced to go to work outside of the home if they get divorced because the courts require them to “pay” their share of child support and “just” staying home with the kids isn’t considered to be of any monetary value. (Not to mention welfare programs that require SAHMs to go to work when their children are not even in school yet. Does it make sense that they have to pay someone else to watch their kids when they could be the ones taking care of them?)

Many women today are refusing to marry even when they’re in a committed relationship. Whether they realize it or not, I think they shy away from wifehood because of the way society treats married women. But marriage is what you make it; it doesn’t have to mean that you stand behind the man. Demand respect for the great person you are in your own right. And don’t let anyone call you “just” a wife.

The Wife Dilemma, Part One

Here’s one of my biggest pet peeves: women who are written off because they are “only” wives. This especially disturbs me when it is used to dismiss a woman’s expertise or accomplishments because it’s only her husband who is well-known for something. And it really upset me when it was directed at Hillary Clinton.

When Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination in the presidential race of 2008, many people spitefully said that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been married to a President of the United States, as if all she did was stand by his side at ceremonies or pick out his clothes. The ironic thing is that when she did try to take a more active part in her husband’s administration, she was strongly criticized and her efforts were ridiculed.

It’s no wonder that other First Ladies have been careful to pick causes that are considered appropriate for a wife of a President to have. I had high hopes for Michelle Obama; I thought she might take on something like domestic violence or poverty, or even, God forbid, reproductive rights. Instead she settled on childhood obesity, a nice safe cause that won’t rock anyone’s boat. (Although I did read that Sarah Palin criticized her for trying to tell parents what to do with their children; of course she equated that with big government.)

There were times during Bill Clinton’s presidency when I wondered what Hillary Clinton thought she was doing. But that was mainly because there was no precedent for it. At other times I thought, “Why not?” After all, who would be more in tune with what her husband was trying to accomplish than she? And it’s not like she’s a dummy; far from it. She’s an intelligent and accomplished person in her own right.

So is Michelle Obama. And if I sound like I’m saying she has to have her own “outside” job to be considered important, I’m not. On the contrary, I’m saying that we should accord respect to wives no matter what they do in or out of the home and not assume that just because they’re wives they’re incapable of contributing anything important to the world. I would just like to have seen her take on something a little more “earth-shattering” than childhood obesity (and before you jump in, I do realize that it’s a big problem; I just happen to think that getting food to starving children should be a higher priority than taking it away from kids who don’t need it).

But she’s probably responding, at least in part, to people who are ready to pounce on her if she so much as comments on a “touchy” subject. She’s not supposed to have opinions of her own, even if she has the knowledge and experience to back them up. I thought she added a lot to her husband’s campaign but as soon as he was elected, she seemed to have lost her voice.

Eleanor Roosevelt is probably considered the best First Lady this country has ever seen. But even she restricted herself to “feminine” causes like human rights, the status of working women and world peace. The truth is, though, she could probably have taken over for her husband in a heartbeat (and some think she did occasionally). She would have made a wonderful President. Still, she at least received recognition for her own accomplishments. She was never seen as “just” the wife of a President.

We should never underestimate what the woman behind a “great” man is capable of absorbing from being involved in her husband’s world. Wives know a lot more than we give them credit for. If we would just look past the label, we would discover a woman who is just as capable of “running the world” as her husband is.

See my next post for “The Wife Dilemma, Part Two.”

Thanksgiving

I’m celebrating Thanksgiving a little differently this year. On the actual day (which is tomorrow), it will just be my husband and me because my kids are all going to be with other relatives. However, I will be participating in a Thanksgiving luncheon at work today. (See my post on I, Muslimah for details.) But no matter how I celebrate it, I welcome this time of the year because it reminds me to be thankful.

One year when my kids were little I had them write out what they were thankful for on slips of paper and then we read them during Thanksgiving dinner. I kept those slips for the longest time in a keepsake box my children had given me. We should have repeated it every year. In fact, I would like to do that now.

So, in lieu of slips of paper, here is what I’m thankful for:

  • First and foremost, I’m thankful for God, because without Him there would be nothing else to be thankful for.
  • I’m thankful that I have had a rich and exciting life (I’m even thankful for the bad parts, because they make me appreciate the good!)
  • I’m thankful for my children, because they changed me for the better.
  • I’m thankful that I had all daughters who are now beautiful women inside and out.
  • But I’m also thankful that I got to experience a grandson.
  • I’m thankful for my sons-in-law and their families for expanding my family so wonderfully.
  • I’m thankful for my husband for showing me what true love really is.
  • I’m thankful for my mother- and father- in-law for raising such a wonderful man, and for my sister-in-law who always keeps him honest!
  • I’m thankful that I am a woman so that I could experience pregnancy and childbirth—yes, even that!
  • I’m thankful for all my friends and relatives who make me feel like I’m part of the human race.
  • I’m thankful for the faith path that God has led me on, from Christianity to Islam.
  • I’m thankful for my Muslim brothers and sisters and the love and guidance they give me.
  • I’m thankful that my parents were amazing people who always loved, accepted and supported me.
  • I’m thankful for my sister, my only sibling and my compatriot through life.
  • I’m thankful for my two cousins who make me feel connected to that side of the family.
  • I’m thankful for my home, which has nurtured me and been my safe haven for over a decade.
  • I’m thankful for technology for opening up my world immensely.
  • I’m thankful for my psychiatrist!

Women As Culture-Keepers

When I wrote the post “What Does a Powerful Woman Look Like?,” one word I managed to avoid was “culture,” even though what I was ultimately trying to say was that you can tell a powerful person by the influence she has had on her culture.

I might have avoided the word because “culture” is hard to define. It’s not synonymous with history, although events do help to shape it. It’s more than the shared set of values of politics or religion. And although the word is often used as a blanket term for the arts, in its broadest sense it encompasses much more. Wikipedia defines culture in three ways:

  • Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
  • An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group

In my opinion, culture is what identifies us, as individuals and as groups. Your culture is the milieu in which you exist. When forced out of your milieu, or natural habitat, you experience “culture shock.”  You don’t know how to relate to the world, to other people, or even to yourself. Culture provides you with your points of reference so that you know how to navigate the world.

Some men think that they are the shapers of culture because they’re given most of the credit for making history. They see themselves as the movers and shakers, the ones who set policy, enact and enforce laws, fight battles and govern countries. Although there have always been women who have also done these things, it has been men’s accomplishments that are seen as carrying more weight.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the role that women play in the shaping of culture. While men provide the broad brush strokes of a society’s culture, it is women who fill in the details. And more than that, women are also the ones who are primarily responsible for transmitting culture from one generation to the next.

To get at what I mean, let’s look at a typical family: The husband’s job determines the socioeconomic level of the family but it is the wife who decorates the home, plans the meals, picks out the clothes, and spends most of the disposable income. She is also the one who writes thank-you notes, invites the in-laws over for Thanksgiving and makes most of the decisions about family rituals. Because she is the primary child caretaker, she picks out the books the children read, decides what television will be watched and buys the toys the children play with.

In American society, even though over half of the work force is made up of women and 75% of those work full-time, it is still the woman who does all these things and more. Why? Is it because her husband refuses to help her? Or is it because she feels like it is her responsibility to fulfill this function?

Continue reading “Women As Culture-Keepers”

TIME’s 25 Most Powerful Women of the 20th Century

In this video, women at TIME talk about their favorites on the 25 most powerful women of the 20th century list which was compiled by the magazine. (The full list is below the video.)