03/23/2009 05:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011


By Caryl Rivers

The media still can't get a handle on Michelle Obama.

There's a strange duality in the way in which she's presented--either Michelle-O as Jackie-O, the comfortable essence of traditional femininity, or as something more sinister, a Valkyrie in the guise of a traditional female.

Many of the stories we read about the new first lady these days are about her clothes. She's on the cover of Vogue, and her inaugural fashion choices were endlessly discussed. Not since Jackie Kennedy has a first lady's fashion choices been such a big story.

But even then, the media worries. We've had Armgate, in which journalists seemed to fret that those great-looking sinewy arms of Michelle's bespoke something worrying about female power. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for one, was uncomfortable with that display of formidable female flesh. "She's made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning."

Fellow columnist Maureen Dowd took a sunnier view of female power, writing, " is Michelle who looks as though she could easily wind up and punch out Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff, and all the corporate creeps who ripped off America."

Not since Arnold Schwarzenegger bared his biceps in "Conan the Barbarian" has there been such a contretemps about arms. The Chicago Tribune noted that "any famous woman who bares her arms in front of the U.S. Congress, on television, in winter, may as well have texted an invitation to the nation to discuss her biceps."

But Jackie Kennedy was famous for her chic, sleeveless sheath dresses and no one seemed to worry that she was about to punch someone out?

And when the news media isn't writing about Michelle's clothes, they are concentrating on the fact that she's a mom, with headlines like these: ABC News: Michelle Obama: Mom First, Political Wife Second; Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama NPR; Reuters: Michelle Obama the 'Mom in Chief' and so on.

Of course, Michelle Obama wears clothes like a supermodel and has two adorable kids, so the media will pay attention. But it seems odd to me, just a few days after it was reported that for the first time, women will soon outnumber men in the labor force, that we are making such a big deal over whether Michelle will be a mom or a pugilist or a policy wonk. I flash back to the 1970s when the headlines blared "Can Women Have it All?" And the answer was usually no.

For a lot of years now years now, women have been running companies, running for Congress, commanding a space shuttle, preparing trial briefs, flying in combat, and doing surgery. Why isn't the fact that Michelle's a mom and an accomplished career woman simply ho-hum? Why does the media seem to be trying to turn Michelle into the anti-Hillary, downplaying her brains and her ambition. After all, when Michelle met Barack, she was more distinguished than he. She met her future husband at the Chicago law firm Sidley, Austin, and she was assigned to mentor him while he was a summer associate.

In fact, there's been a conservative tide running in the media for some time now. We're heard that women are "opting out" of good jobs. Not true. In fact, highly educated women are much more likely to be in the work force than at home. We've read that men don't like smart women. Not true--the more education a woman has, the more likely it is that she will get married. We've read that if a woman makes more money than a man, her marriage will be troubled. Not so. Women who earn more than their husbands have marriages as stable as women who earn less. But what do the gorgeous, high-powered career women in "Sex and the City" worry about? That they can't get a man.

The further away we get from the world of Ward and June Cleaver from the 50s sitcom, the more nostalgic we seem to be for the era when dad went out to work and mom stayed home and vacuumed--with or without pearls.

Maybe part of this is nostalgia for an era when men had good stable jobs that they could occupy for 30 years. (Men's wages have been flat or declining for more than 20 years.) Maybe it's the ancient fear that a powerful woman will enchant a man and keep him in her thrall. A lot of first ladies or would-be first ladies have been seen in this light. Eleanor Roosevelt was excoriated for her activism, Rosalynn Carter was called a "Steel Magnolia," Kitty Dukakis was labeled a "Dragon Lady," Nancy Reagan was seen as controlling and manipulative, and Hillary Clinton was called everything from Lady Macbeth to the murderess in "Fatal Attraction."

And of course, scary black women are even more frightening than powerful white ones. During the campaign, Bill O'Reilly said "Now, I have a lot of people who call me on the radio and say she looks angry. And I have to say there's some validity to that. She looks like an angry woman." Fox News' host E.D. Hill teased an upcoming discussion on a gesture Barack shared with his wife, saying, "A terrorist fist jab?"

Are powerful women scary because today, men are losing jobs at a faster rate than women? More women--who often are in jobs that pay less than men's jobs and have fewer benefits--are becoming the family's main breadwinner.

But it's good for families that women have earning power. Today, in an uncertain, globalized economy, we ought to encourage women to get well educated and to get good jobs--for the benefit of the whole family. Before she was first lady, Michelle Obama--who came from a working class family in Chicago--got a great education, and worked in a series of well-paid jobs. She juggled work and family, not with ease, but with success.

That's what makes her a role model for young women, not the fact that she looks great in designer clothes or can punch out bad guys. When will the media get the fact that it's perfectly possible for a woman to be a good mom and a great dresser and a brainy, strong accomplished person.

Not anytime soon, it seems.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England)