Issue 87 — March 2, 2019
I noticed an interesting change during Michele Obama’s ubiquitous book tour. It perfectly spans both Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
During her time in the White House, it annoyed me no end to see her doing things I perceived as making herself smaller. Labeling herself the “mom in chief” though she was also one of the most accomplished professionals, male or female, ever to enter the White House, for example.
While I understood her intention and the constant cultural pressures to deflect the “angry black woman” trope in order to make Barack Obama’s groundbreaking presidency less threatening to white America, by doing so, she missed a golden opportunity to be a role model for the vast majority of women who are both moms and in the paid workforce, not to mention to girls in the formative stages of thinking about who they might become.
And since all First Ladies are style setters whether they want to be or not, I rued the way she made herself look physically smaller and less powerful by her choice of cardigan sweaters instead of structured jackets. Also, I’ll admit to being jealous of those gorgeous arms, but she set a style trend of sleeveless in the workplace. This makes women look smaller, more vulnerable, and thus less powerful, not to mention cold. As if we need another bias, since workplace temperatures are generally set to be comfortable to jacketed males, plus it’s really hard to function at top capability when you are freezing.
Yes, I obsessed about the bare arms.
It may seem a frivolous concern but it’s actually quite serious. Women have been socialized to make ourselves smaller. We are rewarded for being thin, shorter than our male mates, and less voluble. Enough of that stuff!
As a consequence, we take up less space literally and metaphorically. This is just wrong and we need to change it.
I felt this viscerally this past week when I was the shortest person among those “Ladies Leaving a Legacy” honored by Pat Gillum’s Sisterhood Extravaganza (see below (L-R) honorees Deborah Bateman, Christianne Acosta, Gillum, me, Linda Groomes Walton, and Donise Dillard). I found myself deliberately coming out from behind the podium and using wide arm motions to address the audience when it was my turn to speak so that I had the feeling of maximizing my presence and voice. And oh, I was so sorry that I had violated my own branding rule of wearing red most all of the time.
Manspreading as a symbol of power and privilege
You might recall this article by Gabrielle Moss who spent a weekend “manspreading” in the New York subway to discover how it felt and how people would react. She said she actually felt more confident and relaxed after taking up more space; she observed that doing so is an aspect of unconscious privilege. In other words, when the world is your oyster, you don’t have to worry about being the perfect pearl.
That’s why I’m so happy to see the “Becoming” Michelle wearing luxuriantly large clothes in her public presentations now. Those extravagantly wide legged pantsuits. Those amazing glittery boot leggings with the yellow satin long wrap dress (long sleeved — yay!), the upscale version of Hillary’s notoriously ridiculed “Big Bird” yellow suit.
Obama, with her graceful, muscular body and long legs pulls this off confidently, and in so doing she owns the room, not just as a powerful presence but the physical embodiment of something she says in the book she’s not doing any more: “This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path…and keep you there for a long time.”
She also emphasizes what is perhaps the most important lesson of history, and why my Leadership Power Tool #1 is “Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.”
Obama talks a lot in her book about how she discovered and is using the power of her voice. Since she has an especially large platform and is free of the constrictions of being in the White House, I hope she will “become” a model of social activism for women and people of color. She can play a huge role in making the history of today and the future very different than the past. I especially resonate with her metaphor that we must keep our feet pointed in the direction of progress.
For as Obama eloquently observed about her own path, “It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.”
Making systemic change, getting the whole patriarchal culture unstuck, is how we create a new and brighter future for everyone, including men who have been as boxed in by the expectations of masculinity as women have been limited by gendered social expectations, overt discrimination, and implicit bias.
There’s lots more of #WomensHistoryMonth to come. This International Women’s Day, March 8, will find me at SXSW in Austin TX, joining Suzanne Lerner, president of Michael Stars and Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, founder of CAA Braintrust for several events. If you’re there look us up.
And be sure to join me and some great history making guests for more of this conversation on March 13, Virtual Happy Hour — register here.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.