Michelle Obama: The First Lady on the Role of the First Lady

Mrs. Obama talks candidly about how she's defined and how it's all about "choicer."

It was one of the most fascinating things Michelle Obama was asked during the entire Let’s Move tour, in my opinion, and no, I didn’t ask the question.  I wish I thought of it!

The question stemmed from a recent essay in The New Yorker taking issue with the traditional ceremonial and non-policy role of the first lady and how that role is dramatically at odds with the role of women in today’s society. Women run corporations and run for president so why hasn’t the first lady’s role evolved as women have taken on more and more?

Home run question. Really. Especially because I have long wondered if Michelle Obama was frustrated with the first lady role. “That’s a great question,” said Mrs. Obama, who added, “I’ve spent a little time thinking about it.”

She said she believes there’s “an obligation on the part of the first lady, the first family, the president to be aware of where the country is and sort of figure out how that position fits with where the country is. And I think that every first lady, in their own way, has had to figure that out," Mrs. Obama added.  "And by doing that, I think they pushed the bar a little further.”

Looking at the first ladies who have come before her, she said every one “has opened up the opportunity for me to be this first lady. And a lot of that means that I still have the power of choice."  

Ultimately, she said, “The role has to be defined by the individual.”  The first lady added, "Part of what I say to women, part of what we fight for is choice … we fought for having the right to figure out what we need at any given point in time,” which means the right to choose to be whatever first lady you want to be.

I can totally relate. It’s like a mom deciding to devote more time to her kids at one part of her career, or devoting more time to career at another point – it’s having the power to decide what you need and when you need it. Most working moms can relate to that.

Asked what would be a breakthrough for the role? Mrs. Obama didn’t miss a beat. “What would be a breakthrough? Having a man," she said to laughter. For the record, the majority of participants in the roundtable were women. “That would be very interesting to see.”

It would, Mrs. Obama. It definitely would.

After thinking about the conversation some more, I have a greater sense of the decisions the first lady has made – and am really glad she has the power to make the choices she’s made.  I also long for a time – I have a hunch Mrs. Obama does too – when the country is truly ready for the first lady to be as powerful, as outspoken and as involved in policy as she wants to be.

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Kelly Wallace is Chief Correspondent of iVillage. She is one of only five reporters – and the sole digital reporter -- who traveled with the first lady during her three-day, five-city tour promoting her health and fitness Let’s Move campaign. You can read Kelly’s blog from the trip here.  Follow Kelly on Twitter.

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