Sunday, July 18, 2010

Michelle Obama Deserves to Be Paid

Once again, we have a highly educated first lady in office. Michelle Obama has a Bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a J.D. from Harvard, and a long career as an attorney in private practice, working for the Chicago city government, and for the University of Chicago. Arguably, she is more qualified for the office of President than her husband; yet it was she who had to quit her job to help him campaign, despite showing signs of ambivalence about the run for the Presidency early on.

Interestingly enough, there are no official duties tied to the office of First Lady. Yet oddly, the First Lady is given a staff and an office at the White House. Why does a person with no official duties need an office and a staff? Because the duties are implied. And despite that the First Lady is not an elected official, and despite that she did not campaign for this position, and despite that she may have no real interest in politics, and despite that she is only where she is based on the man who happens to be her husband, and despite that she may not be thrilled about being a glorified figurehead who is constantly scrutinized, she is expected to do certain things.

As First Lady, Michelle Obama is expected to advocate, hold receptions, visit various businesses, government offices, other establishments, states, and foreign countries, meet with staff members, receive the White House Christmas tree, and host tea parties for the wives of other elected officials. She regularly gives speeches on different topics both in foreign countries and here in the United States. She has to attend state events with her husband. Recently, Michelle visited the Gulf of Mexico coast. She has now undertaken an effort to prevent childhood obesity. Her official web page closes with the following:

As First Lady, Mrs. Obama looks forward to continuing her work on the issues close to her heart — supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, encouraging national service, promoting the arts and arts education, and fostering healthy eating and healthy living for children and families across the country.
Emphasis added by me, because for all of this, Michelle Obama does not get paid for her work. Making the job official, and describing official duties would require some form of compensation.

Occasionally I see online polls asking the question: “Do you think Michelle Obama is fulfilling her duties as First Lady?” or even “Is Michelle Obama doing a good job as First Lady?” Both questions are flawed because there are no duties and there is no job, only expectations based on what First Ladies have done in the past. It could be strongly argued that Michelle Obama doesn’t have to do anything as First Lady – after all, without defined duties, who is to insist that she do anything? Why should she be expected to fly all over the country, advocate for anything, or dress in a certain way simply because the man she married was elected President? In fact, I would love to see a First Lady refuse to partake in this, and continue on with her own career rather than pander to her husband’s, or even to just stay home in the White House and raise the children and not get involved in anything political.

Why should the First Lady have to work what is essentially a full time job for no pay? Had Hilary Clinton won the 2008 election, would Bill Clinton have stepped into the role of “First Man” and worked a full time job for no pay? Somehow, I doubt it. Bill would’ve found some way to get paid for his efforts. It’s even more frustrating when the current First Lady – much like Hilary Clinton – had a career in her own right prior to moving to the White House.

Maybe Michelle Obama is fine with this; and maybe Hilary Clinton was also fine with it. But I find it hard to believe that these two career driven and successful women receive great satisfaction out of working for free (and doing all of these things is work) when they could be spending time with their children or pursuing their own interests. Arguably, at least some of the efforts of the First Lady align with her own interests, but do all of them? Would Michelle Obama choose to do all of these things, if given the choice? Michelle Obama doesn’t strike me as the type who enjoys a tea party in the Rose Garden. (Lord, I would hate doing that.) And there is something to be said for earning a paycheck for your efforts.

Maybe back before equality and careers and women’s rights the role of the First Lady could be considered a prestigious one, and women were fine doing all of these things for no pay and in support of their husband. Nowadays, it seems antiquated and – dare I say – almost pathetic that simply because a man chose to pursue a particular career path that his wife is expected to follow that path along with him, and to spend four or eight years working for free. It’s doubly pathetic when said wife is very qualified in her own right for many paying jobs, yet even workers at McDonald’s get paid more than she does. It’s triply pathetic that we the citizens expect her to do all of this without pay. For all of the scrutiny she receives – and Michelle Obama is scrutinized for everything she wears and everything she says and everything she does in the same way that the President is – in a job that she didn’t choose, is it all really worth nothing in terms of dollars and cents? Nothing? Fair is fair – if the First Lady is held to certain expectations, she should be paid for complying with those expectations.

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