Let’s Face It: Michelle Obama Is a Feminist Cop Out

A debate has erupted over whether the First Lady is hurting workplace equality

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to students about committing to education to create a better future on Nov. 11, 2013, at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C.

Michelle Cottle’s Politico story “Leaning out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare” predictably kicked the cyber–hornet’s nest. “Dear Michelle Cottle,” wrote Melissa Harris-Perry in an open letter on the MSNBC website over the weekend, “Are you serious?” “Shameful,” writer and Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead tweeted. Within hours, Cottle, a respected former New Republic staffer before moving to Politico, didn’t seem to have a girlfriend left on the Web.

But I think Cottle is on to something. I don’t mean that Obama doesn’t have a right to be Mom in Chief, First Child-Obesity Fighter, White House Christmas tree decorator any other darn thing she wants. Cottle’s critics are right on that one.

Still, her choice does throw a spotlight on the muddled goals of contemporary feminism. On the one hand, the No. 1 priority of official feminist groups is to eliminate the pay gap, smash the glass ceiling, and make sure that men share 50-50 of the housework and child care. On the other hand, as the response to Cottle’s provocation proves, it wants to end shaming and blaming and celebrate women’s freedom to do what they want. “Feminism allows women to take the role with which they choose and be proud of it and not harassed,” huffed one of the commenters about Cottle’s piece. “If Michelle is choosing this role then that is her right. How dare you find the audacity to criticize her?” Cottle’s argument “is the same judgey-wudgey bullshit that some feminists espouse which only serves to divide all women,” wrote Jessica Wakeman at the Frisky, the popular young-women’s-lifestyle site.

(MORE: First Lady Michelle Obama Takes Up a New Cause: Getting More Kids to College)

But women on both sides seem to ignore the fact that the pesky laws of mathematics make the two goals of workplace equality and women’s freedom of choice incompatible. Take the glass ceiling. Women graduate law school and become associates at the same rate as men. Go a step higher on the career ladder, however, and the ladies begin to disappear. By the time you get to the potential pool of partners, women are as rare as hummingbirds. At the top law firms, the sorts that attract people with credentials like Obama’s, women are only 19% of equity partners, according to the research group Catalyst. Similarly, women are only 26% of federal judges, 23% of state judges, 27% of law-school deans. At least part of the reason for the disappearing act is that many women are like the First Lady: they ease back on their ambitions for the sake of family life.

Women lawyers are hardly the only ones to say “no, thanks” to a chance to break the glass ceiling. According to research from McKinsey, women are 53% of new corporate hires. Yet they hold only 37% of middle-management positions, 28% of vice-president and senior-managerial roles, and 14% of seats on executive committees. The leaking pipeline, the report goes on, “helps explain why the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies appears stuck at 2-3%.” Berkeley dean Mary Ann Mason has found similar attrition in the academic sciences: while 46% of young scientists started out expecting to become research professors, that was the case with only 11% of new mothers. Doctors are no different. Women doctors are far less likely to choose to go into demanding, high-paying specialties like surgery and cardiology; they are also less inclined to have their own practices. Only 13% of medical-school deans and department chairs are women.

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Feminism confronts the same tension between equality and choice when it comes to the gender wage and wealth gap. Women are far more likely than men to opt out, reduce their hours or work part-time (the preference of the majority of women), which ensures the persistence of both a gender pay and wealth gap. One reason women earn less than men is that they work fewer hours. Just 45.1% of workers logging more than 35 hours a week are women. In fact, 25% of men working full-time jobs had workweeks of 41 or more hours, compared with 14% of female full-time workers. Men are also considerably more likely to be working over 40 and 50 hours.

Some activists like to blame all of this on America’s backwardness when it comes to family policies. That’s not what the evidence shows. Iceland, Sweden and Norway, the world’s most progressive countries, offer generous maternity leave, use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave, quality child care, and lots of cheerleading for engaged fathers. Yet women still work fewer hours — in less senior positions — and earn less than men. Michelle Obama is no exception. All over the world, women have shown by their choices that while they may want legal and moral equality, they’re still not going to behave exactly like men. And they’re surely not going organize their lives around the goal of abstract numerical parity.

And that may be the real feminist nightmare.

MORE: Obama Touts Fair-Pay Law at Historic Seneca Falls Site