Barack Obama is a feminist. So says Barack Obama in a self-authored article for Glamour. This is big news, not just because he’s a man but because he’s a famous and powerful man: things that are rarely connected to people who identify as feminists. Ok, so he gets his cookie (even though, as a close friend reasoned, “all men should be feminists anyway”). But they don’t because masculinity or whatever. So cookie given.I’m not as interested in President Obama’s self-definition as a feminist as I am in what he thinks a feminist is. You see, those in the public eye have been notoriously bad at explaining feminism. At worst, feminists are characterized as man-hating women. At best, narratives follow that feminism is about the equal right of women to work as, say, sexy lethal assassins. As you know, every time a celebrity misidentifies postfeminism as feminism, a feminist media scholar dies (inside, at least).
Some public figures such as (my forever crush) Chimamanda Adichie accurately explain feminism as the work of people who acknowledge and address complex, interconnected issues including gender boxes, socioeconomics, sexuality, violence, work, parenting, race, culture, and domestic relations. But no matter how much Adichie slayed her “We Should All Be Feminists” TedTalk, it won’t get the attention or audience that a Glamor article about feminism written by a sitting male president will. So my question o’ the day: what exactly did President Obama tell us feminism is?
Here’s his article. Read it. It’s good. Ok, there’s a bit too much American exceptionalism and progress narrative. That’s those statements of, gee ladies, look how far we’ve come, you went from being secretaries and housewives to astronauts! There’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s a narrative that ignores issues and inequalities tied to race, socioeconomic status, and citizenship. Many Women of Color were barred from those secretarial positions, and some women didn’t have the socioeconomic standing to be housewives. A White, upper-class woman may become the next U.S. President, but deep and systemic issues around work and domestic opportunity still exist. You know that “women make 79 cents to the man’s dollar thing?” White women make 79 cents to a White man’s dollar. Women of Color, transwomen, and undocumented women make wayyyyy less.
I was prepared for a sitting U.S. president to give me the exceptionalism and progress narrative thing. What I was not expecting was the clear and thoughtful way he addressed masculinity, intersectionality, non-hegemonic identities, and privilege. These are critical aspects of feminist inquiry and activism. So, according to Barack Obama, who is a feminist?
A feminist is a person who acknowledges masculinity is a construct too. In discussions about the constricting and stratified box that is femininity, we often fail to mention how femininity is constructed as a binary contrast to masculinity. President Obama names that dichotomy:“the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.” He also articulates how masculinity is constructed via a particular type of “toughness” or “coolness” that forces men to be “assertive” (aka violent) and prevents them from “shedding a tear” or taking on full-time parenting roles. In short, gender boxes fucking suck. We’re getting marginally better at verbalizing those feminine/female boxes, but male/masculine boxes are just as stifling and damaging.
A feminist is a person who acknowledges that gender intersects with other categories of self. Both Barack and Michelle Obama are good at articulating this, but it bears repeating: gender does not exist in a vacuum and not all women are the same. In his article, President Obama notices and acknowledges that Michelle faces unique and specific gender stigmas and obstacles: “we need to keep changing a culture that shines a particularly unforgiving light on women and girls of color. Michelle has often spoken about this. Even after achieving success in her own right, she still held doubts; she had to worry about whether she looked the right way or was acting the right way—whether she was being too assertive or too ‘angry.’” The Combahee River Collective would agree.
A feminist is a person who acknowledges that, while all people are subject to the sex/sexuality binary, not all people fit that binary. Even very good social justice campaigns tend to employ discourses such as “men need to support their wives.” This presumes that people are cisgender and heterosexual (men and women/men marry women). I know, this is an overwhelmingly dominant and unquestioned belief about bodies and desires. But dominant and unquestioned beliefs are not always true. Actually, there’s a lot of variety in terms of bodies and sexualities, but that variety has been stuffed into those same fucking binary and dichotomous gender boxes. Twice in his essay, President Obama notes that “gender stereotypes affect all of us, regardless of our gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation” and “forcing people to adhere to outmoded, rigid notions of identity isn’t good for anybody—men, women, gay, straight, transgender, or otherwise.” As a queer studies scholar and a feminist, I’d like to see a whole lot more of this. But acknowledging this part of feminism is an important part of being a feminist. So it’s a start.
A feminist is a person who acknowledges their own positions of privilege. Audre Lorde says that when People of Color/women have to continually explain racism/sexism to White people/men, it saps their time and energy that they should be using on themselves/their own liberation. Peggy McIntosh says that people with racial or gender privileges have a responsibility to see and name their own privileges. Several times in this essay, President Obama notes his own gender privileges vis-à-vis Michelle. He notes that few people questioned his choice of occupation even though it took him away from his family for long periods of time. He notes his ability to support his family on his own time schedule, even though it meant his female partner had to pick up whatever slack was left. He notes how men such as him are congratulated for changing their child’s diaper because it is framed as an aid rather than a duty. In short, he notes how he was able to succeed in part because of institutionalized gender privileges regarding work and family.
I must admit that I avoided reading this essay for two days because I was fairly certain President Obama would articulate that glossy, surface, faux version of feminism that is so often the pop culture best-case-scenario. And he did that a bit. But he also hit on several key ideas that are not only essential in any compete definition of feminism, but also critical for informing the actions of any feminist. We should all be feminists, and I agree that that President Obama is one too.