Saudi Arabia’s King Salman greeted President Obama as he arrived with first lady Michelle Obama in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
Michelle Obama’s wardrobe is always a popular topic of conservation and speculation. This week, however, it assumed center stage in the international and national news covering the American diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman. True — the press covered the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the affect of the late Saudi king’s death on oil prices, and questions over American foreign policy toward strategic allies with radically different human right values. But amidst all these crucial and far-reaching international discussions the subject of Mrs. Obama’s appearance — that she did not wear the veil, that her clothes were loose, that she was frowning at points, that her choice of style differed from other occasions — was what garnered attention and Internet chatter.
As it happens, the emphasis on Mrs. Obama’s appearance is the second time this month that the international press focused on the physical presence of a powerful and important woman.
Over a decade ago the Onion (a satirical newspaper), ran a story entitled “Women Now Empowered by Everything.”
“As recently as 15 years ago, a woman could only feel empowered by advancing in a male-dominated work world, asserting her own sexual wants and needs, or pushing for a stronger voice in politics. Today, a woman can empower herself through actions as seemingly inconsequential as driving her children to soccer practice or watching the Oxygen network.”
This, hilarious I might add, story is mocking what is known as “choice feminism,” a term coined by Linda R. Hirshman in the American Prospect in 2006. “A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single,” she wrote. “It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose it.” Hirshman goes on to denounce this idea as a con, asserting that this Charlotte York approach will only lead to stalling, or reversing, gender equality.
Today, us feminists are still stuck in this “I choose my choice” quagmire, with recent battles about “selfies” and Michelle Obama’s feminism as the latest examples.
The “selfie wars,” which Sarah Seltzer wrote about for the Sisterhood, centered on the question of whether or not women taking pictures of themselves can be considered empowering. On one side was Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan arguing that self-portraits only reinforce “the socially-ingrained notion that the most valuable thing she has to offer the world is her looks.” On the other side was Rachel Simmons writing on Slate that selfies are “a tiny pulse of girl pride — a shout-out to the self,” a victory once and for all over the male gaze.
President Obama’s visit to Israel was nothing less than inspiring. He met with many people, enjoyed Israeli music, was inspired by Israeli innovative high-tech technology, and made an inspirational, heartwarming speech in front of young students who applauded his every word. If any of us doubted Obama’s obligation to Israel in the past couple of years, our doubts dissolved over the past few days.
But as perfect as his visit was, one thing bothered me: Where was Michelle Obama? A few weeks ago, it was reported that the First Lady would probably join her husband on this historic visit. But when President Obama stepped down from his plane and waved to the crowd, I noticed that the woman by his side, well, wasn’t… When asked, he replied that Michelle wanted to come but felt obligated to stay with their daughters.
Of course eyebrows were raised at the First Lady’s absence. Some argued that it was not important because it was Obama’s presence in Israel, not Michelle’s, was all that mattered. I disagree. She was needed here, right by her husband’s side.
The induction of the new Knesset this week raised some crucial issues for women in Israeli society, but you’d never know it from following the news. The blogosphere was abuzz this week, but not with stories about the significant strides made by women — for example, the record number of women Knesset members and party leaders; the fact that the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, the only religious party with women on its list and gender issues in its platform, now holds a key position in coalition negotiations; or the fact that negotiations hinge in large part on demands for mandatory conscription of haredi men, a plan with serious implications for women in the status of women IDF. All of these issues may potentially affect women’s lives and status in Israel, but apparently they’re all, well, boring. The real news, apparently (even here at the Sisterhood) was what Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s wife wore to the inauguration.
There are many good reasons why Sara Netanyahu’s dress should not be news. For one thing, she is not a lawmaker and therefore should not be the focus of the story. The news of the day should have been about 120 incoming legislators, 48 of whom are completely new to the institution and 27 of whom are women. It should have been about issues on the national agenda and the civic mission of the new Knesset, not on spouses’ clothing.
Apparently inspired by the reunion of Destiny’s Child at the Super Bowl, Sara Netanyahu showed up at the swearing in of the 19th Knesset in a form-fitting — well actually more like skin-tight — lace dress with a see-through top.
While we all love a first lady who can part with convention, it gets a little scary when the shift in style appears to be inspired by the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
In the United States we have had some great sartorially rebellious first-wives, namely Michelle Obama and Jackie O, both of whom redefined femininity for a generation. Jackie O did it with her A-line dresses, pill box hats and pastel suits. And Michelle Obama has inspired many women with her bright colors, strong arms, and mixing of couture with J. Crew. These first ladies achieved fashion icon status because of they way they come off as elegant and graceful while also appearing modern and relevant.
Joyce Burnick has a problem with Michelle Obama. It’s her arms. As she recently put it in the New York Times style section: “The first lady has made it unacceptable for women to appear in public with covered arms. . . Not all women are blessed with the first lady’s workout discipline or genetic gifts. That is especially true of most of us over the age of, say, 50, or, to be more liberal, 50ish. Or, to be more candid, older.
To us, the naked arm taunts — as tall taunts short, as lithe taunts square.”
But for me, and perhaps this has much to do with me being, it seems, a quarter century younger than Burnick, the rise of the Michelle’s naked arms has had the opposite effect.
In my freshman year of high school I used to participate in impromptu arm-wrestling matches with male classmates. Quite often, I would win. Sure, my competitors were scrawny honor students whose voices were high and upper-lips bare. But still, they were boys, I was a girl, and victory was sweet.
That was freshmen year. By junior year, my strong, victorious arms, which didn’t look particularly out of place next to the soft belly and flat chest I sported at 14, suddenly appeared distinctly masculine when paired with my new C-cup and slightly widened hips. Before long I began to change the way I dressed and behaved in order to divert attention away from those once-exalted arms.
Now I am hardly the only woman who, in her teens, zeroes in on the body part that will serve as the nucleus of self-scrutiny and unhappiness for years to come. But unlike my friends who thought they had flabby thighs or wide hips, I could find no advice in lady magazines on how to work with bulky arms. Not only did I have a problem area, I came to understand, I had a particularly unfeminine problem area.
Burnick said that, because of Michelle, women’s clothes now are more likely to showcase the arms. But I have found that they have long been cut to conceal the bottom half while arms received no such sartorial protection.
I expected the first night of the Democratic National Convention to be interesting, maybe even fun, and certainly worthy of skepticism. But I can’t say I expected it to be must-see TV.
I turned on CSPAN at the end of the workday yesterday, planning to leave it on in the background and get some extra work done at the computer or around the house. But just like Blair Thornburgh, my attention was immediately captured by the strong group of Democratic women from the House of Representatives (plus a few promising candidates) who stood together in an array of multicolored suit jackets and spoke with passion about healthcare, taking care of veterans, and reproductive freedom. As POLITICO rather bluntly put it before that group appearance:
Two black women, a Hispanic woman, an Italian-American woman, a Jewish woman and a war veteran will appear in the 7 p.m. hour in a bold-faced attempt to showcase the party’s women and diversity.
Little did I know, this moment was only the beginning of an unforgettable night. Stacey Lihn, whose daughter was born with a heart defect, spoke with a catch in her throat of how Obamacare had enabled her young child to stay insured. It’s hard to argue against a policy when a family is there explaining how it saved their child’s future.
I’m a sucker for a good montage. I’ve been known to reach for the tissues before the Academy Awards even starts pulling out all of the schmaltzy stops. (I’m not even talking about the montage of people who died; I tear up during the “magic of the movies” opener.) But pageantry? Please. Watching on TV, I never fall for people who look emotional and choked-up behind the podium.
This week, I headed to the Democratic National Convention with a hardened gaze, endeavoring to take an even-handed look at all the pageantry and politicking, and to exercise some shrewd insight over the hullaballoo. Because what are the speeches and presentations of the evening if not the world’s largest infomercial, the commercial cousin to the montage? And isn’t politics just Hollywood for ugly people, anyway?
As I took my seat, journalistic objectivity and heartstrings of steel were my watchwords, and at first, it was easy. I watched. I took noted. I occasionally scoffed. But when the Democratic women of the U.S. House of Representatives took the stage, I started listening harder. These women, in a rainbow of backgrounds, constituencies, and pantsuits, were talking about issues, but not in some abstract, fade-to-music way. They were telling their stories and fights with rhetorical flair, and I found myself genuinely thrilled to hear about the legislation they passed for military families, victims of domestic violence, and fair pay for women. I watched presentations onscreen about families who could finally afford to take care of a sick little girl under the Affordable Care Act. I watched Tammy Duckworth and Nancy Keenan and Lilly Ledbetter and I felt something kick to life in me, an unbidden inspiration.
When I was a new mother bottle-feeding my oldest son more than 16 years ago, I had to endure the rude stares of other mothers at the pediatrician’s office waiting room. If I — someone who opted against breast-feeding for a number of personal preference and health reasons — thought that experience on the Upper West Side in 1994 wasn’t pleasant, I would definitely feel uncomfortable giving birth in Israel now.
As a signatory to the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, Israel is set to follow through on its commitment to promote the breast over the bottle, including the banning of marketing of breast milk substitutes.
As in the U.S., where First Lady Michelle Obama has spoken out in favor of breast-feeding as a means of preventing childhood obesity and where the IRS recently ruled that breast pumps and other nursing supplies qualify for tax breaks, Israel appears to be encouraging women to consider the advantages of making the natural choice. The way I see it, however, Israel is poised to take steps beyond public education, crossing over into coercion territory.
Miri Ben-Ari, the Israeli “hip-hop violinist” who has played with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and who recently was honored by Michelle Obama at the White House this week, has single-handedly turned the violin into a cool instrument.
It’s wonderful to have a glamorous female role model who has mastered music. While “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua may have had the energy to stand over her daughters for hours of practice and turn them into virtuosos, we weaker-willed Western moms are always looking for ways to motivate our daughters to take up a musical instrument and practice diligently.
And now we can point to Ben-Ari, in her designer dresses and with her glamorous celebrity lifestyle. Presumably, it works much better than attempting to get them excited about playing in some boring old symphony.
Despite what you think you know about the 2008 presidential election, the recently released book “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” (Free Press) by Salon.com senior writer Rebecca Traister, proves there is still much to learn. Allison Gaudet Yarrow asked Traister about her thoughts on the bitterness toward women during the election and about Jewish women’s duty to feminism.
Allison Gaudet Yarrow: Your book chronicles how the 2008 election reinvented women and power. What changed?
Rebecca Traister: Our sense of how women could behave in public and political life. Suddenly so many more models for public femininity are possible.
Why do American women want our female leaders to be better versions of ourselves, but when they’re not, we’re their harshest critics?
Last Friday, Michelle Obama spoke to leaders of several women’s groups arguing that “overhauling the nation’s health care system was of critical importance to women and part of ‘the next step’ in their long quest to assure full opportunity and equality.” With healthcare reform at the forefront, it is becoming more and more obvious that the status quo is sexist, unfair and often dangerous for women. For the first time in a long time, I am getting angry.
Maybe I’m angry because, often, Viagra is covered by health insurance but birth control is not, even though it is often used to treat crippling abdominal cramps and other menstrual symptoms. Maybe I’m angry because while contraception benefits both partners in a heterosexual relationship, the onus of seeking and paying for birth control always falls on the woman.
Or maybe I’m angry because I recently found out that a number of health insurance companies deny women coverage, citing “domestic violence” as a pre-existing condition. Excuse me? As Feministe explains, this is “blaming the victim” at its worst. Essentially, this policy reinforces the belief that only “weak” women get physically abused, and that weakness is so much of a liability that such a woman is not eligible for health insurance. Not only is this ideologically repulsive, it denies healthcare coverage to women who are experiencing violence and have an immediate, physical need for healthcare services.
Today’s papers are full of photos of First Lady Michelle Obama in New York, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful at the reopening yesterday of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American wing and at last night’s gala for the American Ballet Theatre. But Mrs. O’s New York trip left Sara Netanyahu — in Washington with her husband Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both pictured below — without a meet-and-greet with the First Lady.
While many in the Israeli press saw the crossed paths as a snub, Israeli television personality Meirav Michaeli, writing in Haaretz, urged Mrs. Netanyahu not to waste her energy feeling hurt:
Dear Sara, at the beginning of your husband’s first term you were involved in various activities; you were the chairwoman of Yad BeYad (Hand in Hand) for children in distress, and honorary president of Tsad Kadima (A Step Forward) for children who suffer from cerebral palsy. I also remember the tremendous energy and strong desire for action you showed when you answered our invitation to provide sponsorship for Ezrat Nashim’s major launching event for victims of sexual attacks. … I beg of you to take all that energy and talent and use your position to tell young women about the difficulties you experienced, to instill hope and bring about change.
Not that Mrs. Netanyahu, a child psychologist who works for the Jerusalem municipality (a job she has vowed to keep despite her husband’s prime ministership), seems to be letting the circumstances get her down. In lieu of a White House Tea, she met with child psychologists working for the city government in Washington, and her plans today include a visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.