In a piece published Thursday by Glamour, President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to feminism and to calling himself a feminist. “It’s important that their dad is a feminist,” Obama wrote, referring to his daughters Sasha and Malia, “because now that’s what they expect of all men.”
This isn’t the first time Obama has called himself as a feminist; during a June summit at the White House, he first fully embraced the moniker of “feminist,” using the old phrase, “this is what a feminist looks like,” as he addressed persistent obstacles—like maternity leave and equal pay—in the project of gender equality. In that speech, like his Glamour article today, Obama framed feminism in the context of the family, speaking about his daughters, again, and feminism’s relationship to fatherhood.
It’s a familiar frame of feminism and gender equality, one where domestic relationships give men a clear stake in the conversation; a way to signal to men that their wives and daughters are worth their public advocacy. Obama writes:
Now, the most important people in my life have always been women. I was raised by a single mom, who spent much of her career working to empower women in developing countries. I watched as my grandmother, who helped raise me, worked her way up at a bank only to hit a glass ceiling. I’ve seen how Michelle has balanced the demands of a busy career and raising a family. Like many working mothers, she worried about the expectations and judgments of how she should handle the trade-offs, knowing that few people would question my choices. And the reality was that when our girls were young, I was often away from home serving in the state legislature, while also juggling my teaching responsibilities as a law professor. I can look back now and see that, while I helped out, it was usually on my schedule and on my terms. The burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle.
Here, the President pays witness to the reality of women’s work, the fits and stops of careers impacted by real tangible gender discrimination, as well as the often invisible labor of motherhood, particularly by black women. Obama reflects on his own role in the continuation of that invisible labor, delineating the stereotypical expectations that often underpinned his own concepts of marriage and parenting.
The piece is fine and there’s very little for men or women to disagree with: gender stereotypes are, indeed, bad. And it’s undoubtedly important for girls across America to have a diverse set of role models, “I want them to know that it’s never been just about the Benjamins; it’s about the Tubmans too,” Obama writes.
Ultimately the piece was a nod to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, an eloquent summation of the kind of “dad feminism” that has gathered around Clinton’s campaign. During the Democratic National Convention, a handful of speakers emphasized that Clinton’s nomination was important for their daughters. Men at home tweeted photos of their daughters, often with the sentiment that there was nothing their daughters can’t do. “From now on, little girls will know that they can become the nom of a major party. In Nov[ember], let’s make sure they know they can become POTUS,” Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, tweeted. He also tweeted a photograph of his daughter hugging the television during Clinton’s speech:
Newsom was one of the public men to embrace feminism during the DNC, an ostensibly progressive pronouncement wrapped up in a more acceptable guise of fatherhood and family. There’s nothing wrong with a father wanting equality for his daughter, but it’s an approach to feminism that chafes at the core of equality; namely, that men would only be interested in history making if they too had some clear biological stake in it. “It is absolutely men’s responsibility to fight sexism too,” Obama writes. “And as spouses and partners and boyfriends, we need to work hard and be deliberate about creating truly equal relationships.”
Obama’s short essay is certainly trying to make a neutral appeal of women’s value, but the nature of that appeal strikes as outmoded as the very gender stereotypes he addresses. In the narrative of “dad feminism,” women’s equality is still bound and dependent on their relationship with men. As my colleague Kelly said, “it’s feminism as a lifestyle statement.” And maybe it’s an acceptable way for men to state their feminism, to frame it as one of their many sacrifices as parents and thus reshape feminism as a familial work, stripping it of its radical roots and progressive ideology. But there’s a limited appeal here, one that reinforces women’s worth as deeply interdependent on domesticity.
Changing a diaper or two, as the President suggests, is great (though I’m not certain we should “celebrate” men for doing so), as is the recognition of women’s work, but it would be even better if we could have that conversation outside of the boundaries of family relationships.