Feature

The power of Michelle Obama

Forbes has just named the U.S. First Lady the most powerful woman in the world.

Let’s hear it for Michelle Obama, said France’s La Montagne. Forbes has just named the U.S. First Lady the most powerful woman in the world. It’s a “well-deserved reward for a fine performance.” Strong, smart, and maternal, Michelle has “transformed the way Americans perceive African-American women.” And with her high-profile involvement in the fight against childhood obesity, she’s changing the way people eat and shop. Michelle “has already succeeded in influencing” such food giants as Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s to change the ways they market their products.

Look, I like Michelle Obama as much as the next person, said Grace Dent in Britain’s Guardian. “If people want to festoon trophies upon her for being ‘caring,’ ‘motherly,’ or having attractively toned arms in designer dresses, be my guest.” But she’s certainly not the most influential woman on the planet. In Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful women, Michelle beats out Kraft Foods CEO Irene Rosenfeld, Oprah Winfrey, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton. Of those top five, Obama has probably achieved the least professional distinction. Are we really to believe that “just because she gets to go to bed with Barack,” she has more power than Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who merely “gets to protect the entire country?” What a sad reflection on the state of feminism that “being on the arm of a powerful man raises a woman’s stock more than her own personal achievement.”

Forbes is “just being plain sexist,” said Naomi Lakritz in Canada’s Calgary Herald. It actually starts off its description of Michelle by calling her a “fashion icon and an athletic mother of two.” The implication is that power, for a woman, resides in what you symbolize rather than what you do. If the situation were reversed and Michelle were president, nobody would say that Barack’s position as her husband made him the most powerful man in the world. “Only women bear the burden of being defined by association with a spouse.”

Yet the sexism is not even the most offensive thing about the ranking, said Vladislav Vorobev in Russia’s Rossiiskaya Gazeta. How about the blatant American chauvinism? Of the 100 women listed, 70 are Americans. And most of them are influential only in the U.S. Michelle, for example, has done little but “recommend that Americans lose weight”—a worthy goal, to be sure, but one that hardly concerns the rest of the planet. German Chancellor Merkel, by contrast, wields enormous influence worldwide. She “always plays the leading role in all European and many global summits and negotiations,” and global stock markets and currencies rise or fall depending on what she does and says. Elevating Michelle above Merkel makes no sense. But then, Merkel was ranked first for the past four years before being demoted this year to fourth place. “It must be that Forbes was simply tired of having the same name in the first slot.”

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