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Obama and Ant Traps: the Feminist Candidate


Obama got my attention with ant traps -- not the 2004 convention speech many view as a model of eloquence. True, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states" did a masterful job of returning the word "awesome" from its tawdry place in contemporary culture to its original meaning. But it was The Audacity of Hope that first really struck me -- as much for its stories as for its policy discussions. With remarkably unpolitical openness, Obama wrote about the strain that becoming a senator had put on his marriage. He had married a woman as tough and as smart as he is, and both were committed to equal balance -- hard enough, as we know, with normal jobs, but when one partner is commuting to the U.S. Senate, and the other is keeping the home fires burning while keeping up a fast-paced career of her own, things can get rough. The Senator described the night he proudly called home to tell his wife about a bill he'd cosponsored to restrict black-market arms sales, eager to share his success with the woman he loves. Michelle's response was simple: "We have ants in the kitchen. And the bathroom upstairs." He'd better remember to pick up ant traps on the way home from Washington, because she would be busy taking the children to a doctor's appointment after school. Obama concludes the story bemused, but exhausted: "I hung up the receiver, wondering if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work."

This is a man with his feet on the ground, in love with a woman who's determined to keep them there. It is a very new place to be. Some women played professional roles in earlier eras, but if they had families, they had servants to handle the details. We are the first to struggle (and try not to fight!) over who picks up the children and organizes the carpools, to fret over whether the groceries will be unpacked in time for someone to cook them, and on top of all that we are now learning how to recycle. We are the first to hope we are not missing our children's recitals on some days and underperforming in our jobs on others, to scout out time, just occasionally, to remember why we fell in love with the person who is juggling the balls alongside us. We are the first generation to think about ant traps.

I believe we have too many identities to vote for just one of them. I'd no more support a candidate because she was a woman than because she was Jewish or went to Harvard or was born in Georgia or had twins, any of a number of biographical features that might link me to a random stranger. But if I were only voting as a woman, Obama would be a terrific choice, and feminists who see him as just another guy need to look closer. The Obama family is what the best of modern middle America is trying to be - and they're all the more appealing because they acknowledge that they're still trying to figure it all out too.

This is not the time to wonder how Hillary would have handled the ant traps. I suspect she would have pressed her lips together and done it all herself while finishing her day at the office, taking the kids to the doctor and whipping up dinner on the side -- as so many women who supported her have been doing all along. I wasn't married to a man who picked up the ant-traps, but I expect my daughters will be, and my son seems to view that kind of thing as normal. Millions of Americans are working hard and trying to live by the new rules about love and fairness, and raise children who will do it better than we. Imagine them growing up with the Obamas as First Family: a father who worked his way up to Harvard and still kept his street creds and never seems happier than when hugging his children; a mother whose gorgeous looks never undercut but only underscore her powerful will and intelligence; two lovely girls trying to figure out whether to wave shyly to a crowd or to hide in their parents' arms, and whose initial interest in their father's campaign was the promise they would get a puppy at the end of it. (How many working mothers have had hearts and sleeves tugged by a child's plea for a pet, while wondering how we could possibly manage to care for one more living being?) When Malia and Sasha are in the White House, accompanied by their choice of puppy, every American family involved in the balancing act will have reason to feel proud - and supported as we've never been before.

Susan Neiman is the author of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists.