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Linda Keenan Headshot

Dreams From His Mother

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To me, the most enigmatic feminist icon in this whole primary drama has been the woman with a man's name who's been dead for more than a decade: Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro.

When I was writing a post awhile back that could roughly be summarized as "Hillary: Is She Good for the Women?" (my answer: no), I found myself drawn again and again to this intrepid woman, 5 years older than Senator Clinton, and the life that reads more like Nadine Gordimer than Encyclopedia Brittanica. Her son told Time, "She wasn't comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box", and this at a time, the 1950's, when the choices for women were still mostly constricted to house and home. Ann Soetoro apparently didn't get the memo. And while her personal choices surely cost her children some measure of stability (luckily, the candidate's grandmother, another mysterious force, was there to serve as a bedrock), Soetoro also gave them a powerful model for idealism and feminism in action.

She's described from her teen years invariably as ahead of her time, off-center, challenging conventions at every turn. The candidate's half-sister described her this way to the New York Times:

"That was very much her philosophy of life, to not be limited by fear or narrow definitions, to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places."

Obama has called her "the kindest, most generous spirit" he has ever known, but also added that she carried a certain "recklessness" in pursuing her dreams.

At 18, in the early 60's, she married a fellow student, an African, already pregnant with the future candidate. Soon Dad was gone, and she plowed ahead with her ambition to become an anthropologist. Eventually, she met an Indonesian, married him, and off they went to Jakarta, the new husband, the white woman, and the mixed-race child in tow. There the son got early morning lessons of English, Mahalia Jackson, MLK speeches and the young Obama didn't entirely appreciate it, to which she would say "this is no picnic for me either, buster."

Obama headed back to Hawaii for school, under the care of Ann's parents, a decision that friends report was very painful for the mother to make. She became more and more immersed in Indonesian culture as her husband became more and more Westernized, and eventually he is gone too. She went on to build a microfinance program more than a decade before Oprah ever started talking about it. A young female colleague said this about her to the Times:

"I feel she taught me how to live. She was not particularly concerned about what society would say about working women, single women, women marrying outside their culture, women who were fearless and who dreamed big."

Another colleague told Time that Ann once "despaired" of her son ever having a social conscience, a fear that was put to rest when he became a community organizer in Chicago. Friends say she reveled in talking about her children's accomplishments.

Last year, I remember watching Obama intently as a reporter asked him how his mother would react to her son's meteoric rise. It was a moment when his grandiloquence disappeared. He said she would cry and cry, and then, in my recollection (I couldn't find the clip), he mostly demurred. As someone who also lost a mother at a relatively young age, I have found that any success, any milestone is a celebration muted by the fact that I can't call my Mom to tell her about it. I can't help but believe that the candidate's victory this week must be made somewhat bittersweet by the fact that his indomitable Mom isn't here to watch it. I'd like to think that somewhere, she has a front-row seat. But I'm guessing Ann Dunham Soetoro, who believed in her kids, herself, and the capacity to do some good on earth, didn't believe much in angels on a cloud.

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