It's unclear why the term is used so frequently in the People article, especially since Michelle is never quoted using the word herself. The article says (emphasis added):
Just one month on the job, the First Lady takes a break to talk to PEOPLE about loving her family's new life in the White House, her juggling act as mom-in-chief and helpmate to leader of the free world-and, yes, when we'll get to meet the First Puppy.
She is, all at once, so many different things to so many different people: the first African-American First Lady; mom to two very young girls; Ivy League-educated lawyer on hiatus from her own career; fashion icon; traditional hostess and wifely helpmate.
She recognizes that "helpmate" has taken on a whole new meaning as she watches her husband getting grayer by the month.
For now, she's just focused on the job at hand, saying she wants to live up to being the helpmate and role model Americans are looking for in a First Lady.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the word means simply, "A helper and companion, especially a spouse" and comes from a translation of the Bible that refers to God promising Adam "a help meet suitable for him." Obviously, the word could be interpreted to mean that a wife is nothing more than a helper to her husband, but does the term always have a negative connotation? Melissa McEwan writes:
The most obvious word to use would be partner, which I'm guessing was not used for the very reason I like the word-its implicit suggestion of equality.
However, it's actually not the first time Michelle Obama has been described as Barack's "helpmate" rather than his "partner." In a Reader's Digest article on Michelle last year, author Melinda Henneberger wrote:
If Barack is elected, Michelle insists, she has no interest in a role beyond that of helpmate and mother.
And in a December USA Today article, Obama family friend Barbara Engel used the term, saying of Michelle:
She's a down-to-earth woman with consummate self-confidence and excellent judgment, complete integrity, and capable of keeping her kids grounded while being a helpmate and adviser to her husband ... I think Michelle is going to make history as first lady. ... She will keep it real.
In the same article, Ann Stock, White House social secretary under President Clinton says, "The first lady has always been a helpmate and sounding board for the president, his most trusted adviser, and that's always a given." It's likely the use of the word has more to do with Hillary Clinton than Michelle Obama. While it's true that "partner" seems like a more modern term for your spouse, Michelle sanctioning the frequent use of "helpmate" probably has less to do with her not being considered her husband's equal, and more to do with reassuring the American people that Barack's "partner" isn't going to be overhauling the health care system anytime soon.