Michelle Obama's Latest Moniker Has Some People Slightly Miffed

Illustration for article titled Michelle Obama's Latest Moniker Has Some People Slightly Miffed

Shakesville is pointing out that in the People cover story on Michelle Obama, she's called Barack's "helpmate" no less than four times.

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.

Lovely Lady Helpmate [Shakesville]
Helpmate [Dictionary.com]
Michelle Obama Interview: Her Father's Daughter [Reader's Digest]
What Kind Of First Lady Will Michelle Obama Be? [USA Today]

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Color me crazy, but if your spouse is President of these United States, and you don't know that your job is to be of service to your spouse, you don't have a very good marriage. Another reason to be glad that Bill Clinton isn't First Husband.

I am an old-school feminist, wave-free to my way of thinking, and I am here to tell you that no one on earth (no, not even men) gets to be all they want to be on every day of their life. And if Michelle Obama were to try to be a full-time professional with a career outside of the home right now, I would think she was all kinds of wrong-headed.

There is nothing inherently anti-feminist about supporting your husband while he is Commander in Chief (or emasculating, if the Commander in Chief happens to be a woman), nor is there anything inherently anti-feminist in saying "Wow. My young children are going through some crazy shit right now. I think I have to prioritize them for awhile."

"Helpmate" is not a great vocabulary choice, because of all the freight it carries, but when your spouse is President? There is no such thing as "nothing more than" a helper. That helper role is damn important, and should not be looked down upon.