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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Mrs. Obama and Kerry Washington Push for the Arts

Screenshot (TheRoot.com)

Screenshot (TheRoot.com)

(The Root) — Students from the Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C., crooned, somersaulted, Lindy Hopped and re-enacted scenes from the 1970s film Grease on Friday as a way to flex their school’s new muscles in arts education. They performed in the gym to an audience of their peers and two distinguished ladies cheering in the front row: first lady Michelle Obama and actress Kerry Washington.

The showcase demonstrated the school’s involvement in Turnaround: Arts, a new initiative to beef up — and in some cases introduce — arts programs to eight low-performing public schools across the nation. The public and private committees that are funding this endeavor hope that student exposure to dance, music, drama and visual-arts classes will boost academic achievement.

Kerry Washington is a celebrity ambassador to the Savoy school — D.C.’s Turnaround school — which, she told reporters during a brief press conference after the performance, is quite fitting because she is known for “fixing” crises in the nation’s capital as Olivia Pope in the hit ABC series Scandal. The actress said that chronically underperforming schools need fixing, too, and she is convinced that arts programming should be included in reform strategies that attempt to do so. Other celebrities that serve as program ambassadors to Turnaround schools include Alfre Woodard, Sarah Jessica Parker and Forest Whitaker.

Never one to shy away from physical activity, Michelle Obama demonstrated her commitment to the program when she extended her arms and lifted her legs alongside prekindergarten students who giggled at the sight of the first lady participating in their dance moves. In her brief address to the students, Mrs. Obama, who is the honorary chairwoman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities — the federal committee that spearheads Turnaround, and of which Washington is one of several celebrity members — slightly retooled her education stump speech and gave a hat tip to the school’s use of arts education as a way to help students perform at higher levels.

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