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Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

The Working Mother as First Lady.

by Meredith O'Brien

Four years have made little difference.

Heck, 15 years haven't made a difference either.

You see, when it comes to the female spouses of the men who are running for president, no matter what they do in their professional lives, they're, basically, screwed. If the spouse is a working woman, she has two options. Option 1: Pitch the job overboard or scale back the work in order to help campaign. Option 2: Do something different, like continue to work while the husband campaigns. It really makes no difference which option a potential first lady chooses. Whatever option she selects, there are always going to be people on the sidelines with poison pens at the ready, snidely asking her who she thinks SHE is, trying to make her own life's decisions, while they gleefully offer up their own critiques.

As the 2008 presidential primary has already begun in earnest - given that state primaries [1] have been front-loaded into the first few weeks of 2008 and the candidates need to raise money ASAP -the finger wagging at the wives of the candidates has likewise commenced. (The lone husband of the lone female presidential candidate is immune from this sort of scrutiny given the fact that: a) He WAS the president and b) We really do not desire to discuss any more details about his personal life, thank you very much.)

In particular, Michelle Obama, the wife of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, has drawn fire for her recent decision to scale back her work as a well paid hospital administrator to part-time so that she can help her husband make his bid for the Democratic nomination, and so she can still have time to parent their daughters, ages 6 and 8. She's been harshly criticized as betraying her feminist sisters for making this intensely personal and difficult decision.

A sampling of the responses to Obama's choice:

* In an article that specifically stated, "her workload is about 20 percent of what it was," Washington Post [2] writer Anne E. Kornblut led off her story with this: "For the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is about to be unemployed." Apparently, in some quarters, working part-time doesn't really count as working.

* The Detroit News [3] ran the same Kornblut article under the headline, "Obama's wife shelves career." Again with the working part-time doesn't count as working.

* Much was made of Salon.com's essay [4] by Debra Dickerson entitled, "Michelle Obama's sacrifice." "She's traded in her solid gold resume, high-octane talent and role as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to be a professional wife and hostess," Dickerson wrote. While Dickerson went to great pains to say that she wasn't explicitly blaming Obama for what she perceived as caving in to political pressures, Dickerson did say that by Obama going part-time at the hospital in order to campaign for her husband, she set a bad example for "our daughters." (A veiled reference to Obama's daughters?) "Our daughters grow up knowing that their freedom to work at hard-won, beloved careers hinges on the doings of their husbands," Dickerson wrote.

Let's pretend as though Obama did NOT scale back her workload to part-time. Say Obama announced that she was going to remain in Chicago with her young daughters and continue working at the University of Chicago Hospitals, that she'd occasionally join her husband on the campaign trail as she deemed it necessary. Would that make all the complaining stop?

Just ask Judith Steinberg. She was a doctor with her own private practice in Vermont with a teenaged son at home when her husband, the former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, became an overnight political sensation at the end of 2003. Dr. Steinberg decided that, instead of joining her spouse on the campaign trail, she'd tend to her patients and continue volunteering with the PTA. Then the critics came a-callin'. And it wasn't just the traditionalists -- those who like to see spouses nodding and smiling silently next to their candidates -- who were pointing fingers. Journalists also got on Dr. Steinberg's case. A sampling of what Dr. Steinberg faced:

* Quoting political experts and historians about the damage an absent spouse could exact upon her husband's campaign, the New York Times' [5] Jodi Wilgoren wrote, "Some Dean backers see Dr. Steinberg as a role model for independent women balancing careers and children, but others in the campaign increasingly regard her absence as a potential liability for a candidate who is known for his reluctance to discuss his personal life or upbringing." In explaining what was keeping Dr. Steinberg away from the campaign trail, Wilgoren wrote, "Dr. Steinberg said she is simply too busy to get involved in the campaign," and then belittled the goings-on in Dr. Steinberg's life by listing them thusly, "along with her work, and a bimonthly book group, she has volunteer commitments at Burlington High School." Did she itemize and quantify Dr. Steinberg's hours? Write about the type and volume of volunteer work she did? No. Instead, the article later noted that Dr. Steinberg, who didn't own a TV, skipped watching one of the many Democratic candidate debates because she had to do laundry.

* The Drudge Report [6] ran a screaming headline, along with several pointed sub-headlines, asking, "Where is Mrs. Dean?" as if she'd been abducted by a maniac.

* In a New York Times [7] column entitled, "The Doctor is Out," Maureen Dowd wrote: "She is a ghost in his political career. She has never even been to Iowa, and most reporters who have covered Howard Dean's quest here the last two years would not recognize her if she walked in the door, which she is not likely to do, since she prefers examining patients to being cross-examined by voters and reporters." Later, Dowd quoted a fellow journalist as saying, "'What will she tell their grandkids?' wondered one political reporter here. 'Yeah, Grandpa was once a front-runner for president with crowds all over America cheering him, but I was too busy to go see it?'"

* In a post-Howard Dean Scream interview [8] with ABC's Diane Sawyer where Dr. Steinberg did her first national TV chat, Sawyer asked her whether this was her "stand by your man" interview [9], likening Dr. Steinberg to Hillary Clinton, circa 1992, when Clinton sat for a "60 Minutes" interview to defend her husband. (Clinton, who'd been named one of the top 100 lawyers in the country, was forced to retreat from her "two-for-one" promise on the presidential campaign trail where she clearly established that she wasn't going to be a traditional first lady.)

* In addressing all the negative publicity Dr. Steinberg suffered, Salon journalist Rebecca Traister [10] tried to explain the media obsession. "Journalists like me and Jodi Wilgoren and Maureen Dowd - people who obviously like attention and are fascinated by power - cannot fathom why a woman wouldn't be thrilled to be in the center of a political lightening storm," she wrote.

Even though votes are rarely, if ever, cast based on a candidate's spouse's popularity (or lack thereof) -- "No study has concluded that voters choose the president according to whom they're married," one political scientist said in Ms Magazine [11] -- the media persist in pillorying potential first ladies' decisions about their work. These working women just can't seem to win, even when their spouses do. Meredith O'Brien is the author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum [12], a collection of humor columns, and the mother of three. She pens the Boston Mommy [13] blog about parenting for the Boston Herald's web site and teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


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