When First Ladies Clap Back: Michelle Obama vs. Hillary Clinton

How their off-the-cuff responses to adversity are a departure from racial stereotypes.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton

First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

The LGBT activist who interrupted First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech during a fundraising event in early June said she was “taken aback” by Obama’s reply. Her and everyone else. Obama’s response to that interruption went viral.  A boatload of people shared the heckler’s (Ellen Sturtz) feelings of being startled by the First Lady’s reaction, but more specifically, tickled by the level of directness and candor—yet class—that was cloaked in the response, especially from a—dare I say—African-American woman. Social media commentary convened on the idea that Obama’s comments were a departure from the idea that black women cannot be disagreeable in a tactful manner and that they cannot go on the offensive in a polite way.

It’s also interesting to think about Obama’s response when juxtaposed against one of her predecessors, Hillary Clinton, who also spoke up when her feathers were ruffled. If Sturtz was “taken aback” by Michelle, she would have cowered in the face of an early-90’s, pitbull-in-a-suit Hillary Clinton.

Michelle Obama’s comments were not nearly as snippy as Hillary Clinton’s infamous “I suppose I could have stayed at home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,”  comments she made to reporters back in 1992, when she and her husband Bill Clinton (then a Governor) were on the campaign trail for the 1992 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was on defense about foregoing the route of Mommy-tracking her career in light of her husband’s blossoming one. In an interview with 60 minutes earlier that same year, she ballooned this ballsy woman persona when she said, in a rather curt fashion, “I’m not a woman sitting here standing by my man like Tammy Wynette…if that’s enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him.” Clinton was referring to the country singer’s hit song Stand by Your Man and the idea that she idly stood by while Bill Clinton engaged in extramarital affairs.  If one were to compare those comments against the “Listen to me or you can take the mic…You have one choice” ultimatum Michelle dished out to the LGBT heckler lady, it might not have been clear which statement belonged to the black First Lady (let alone the first black First Lady) and which one belonged to the white First Lady, given the mainstream narratives about how black women and white women perform in the face of adversity. According to pool reports, Michelle considered leaving the event, instead of staying to engage Sturtz’ disruptive behavior—again, a clear departure from what some might expect from a self-proclaimed opinionated black woman.

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