Politico Magazine’s cover story declares Michelle Obama “a feminist nightmare,” a label no doubt intended to stir up controversy in feminist circles. Politico’s premise is that Michelle Obama, despite her high-powered corporate law background, has “leaned out” by failing to engage on policy. Instead, writer Michelle Cottle scoffs, “the Ivy-educated, blue-chip law firm-trained first lady” has embraced “safely, soothingly domestic causes” like “gardening” and “clean drinking water.”
This dismissal of Mrs. Obama’s “gardening” ignores the fact that the First Lady is virtually the only person in the Obama administration to address one of the biggest public health crises to ever face the U.S. The American obesity epidemic threatens long-lasting implications for future inequality, mobility, labor, and economic productivity.
Obama’s signature campaign, “Let’s Move,” has hardly been as combative as it could be, yet it is responsible for some of the most meaningful federal action on childhood obesity in years. Obama was instrumental in enacting child nutrition reforms in 2010, giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to set nutritional standards for food sold in schools and increased funding for nutritious meals for low-income children. That initiative has also proven deeply controversial, as many conservatives complain that standards are too tough and that kids won’t eat healthier food.
So why is this wide-reaching policy initiative so cavalierly written off as a “soothingly domestic cause”?
The Politico screed follows a cultural arithmetic that devalues certain kinds of labor as “women’s work.” Traditionally, domestic and child-related fields like teaching, cooking, housekeeping, childcare, nursing, and, yes, gardening, are considered women’s work. Studies show this label does not merely hurt prestige; female-dominated professions are consistently paid less than male-dominated jobs like manufacturing, engineering or financial services. These biases have nothing to do with the actual value of the labor. For instance, one of the most well-paid and male-dominated field today, computer programming, was mocked as women’s work for decades, until male programmers made a conscious choice to increase the prestige of their field by squeezing women out of jobs.
Under our macho metric of success, Obama’s past work as a hospital executive and board member for a food corporation is approvingly termed “high-powered,” but continuing to work on public health issues through national outreach and child advocacy is a descent into the realm of complacent wives and moms. Indeed, Obama often endures mocking in the press as a typical mom nagging kids to eat their vegetables, even as she advances nutrition policies for millions of children.
Cottle wishes, without going into much detail, that Obama would speak out on “a variety of tough issues” and perhaps “focus a spotlight on the myriad problems eating away at minority communities.” Of course, childhood obesity and access to healthy food are crises almost entirely confined to impoverished minority communities. Nearly 40 percent of black and Latino children are obese, compared to 27 percent of their white peers. Poor children of any race are nearly twice as likely to be obese, and rarely have access to the nutrients they need.
The vast majority of children who have benefited from Obama’s school lunch reform are black, Latino, and Native American. These students rely on subsidized or free school meals, which are sometimes the only food a child will eat that day. Food insecurity also takes a toll on students’ academic performance, but research shows school lunch programs can actually reverse that damage.
Obama has also faced daunting opponents in her crusade; Big Food has circumvented her efforts at every opportunity. Obama has become somewhat more aggressive in calling out junk food companies for marketing their products to children of color. In the past, she’s demanded that processed food corporations like Kraft and General Mills “entirely rethink” their products “so that they have less fat, salt, and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need.” She’s also pressured Walmart into publicly agreeing to stock more organic and locally-sourced foods and open more stores in food deserts (a corporate partnership that has yielded a mixed bag).
After five years of Obama’s advocacy, childhood obesity rates are beginning to drop for the first time ever. The First Lady may not be able to take full credit for this monumental change, but her highly visible campaigns have at the very least helped spark serious conversation about the obesity epidemic. But to reduce the only serious federal attempt to curb obesity to the trivial distractions of a “mom-in-chief” is to tell millions of poor women and children their plight is not worth fighting for.