07/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Smart Women, Bloviators and Hand Bumps

Seems like we never quite get away from the background noise. Can you hear it? Strong women are dangerous, strong women should be silenced, strong women threaten to topple all our dearly-held notions about ourselves as a culture. And, look, here it is again, in 2008: Michelle Obama is a militant, angry black woman. Geez.

There's nothing like a confident, accomplished woman as a spouse on the campaign trail. She's a lightning rod. You wouldn't recognize this successful attorney, wife and mother from the stuff you see posted by the breathless bloviators in the blogosphere, not to mention the mainstream media.

At least Michelle has close company. They went after Hillary Clinton even before she made her "Guess I could've stayed home and made cookies" remark, but Clinton endured relentless attacks throughout her husband's presidency primarily because she was smart and successful and not afraid to say what
she thought. "They" feared, and often said so, that she might try to become co-president. Imagine.

Since the Clinton presidency we've had demure Laura, former librarian. She's never said a word on the campaign trail or elsewhere to draw attention to herself and away from her husband. Lord forbid she might have an opinion on public policy. She was the good girl in the White House. Her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, was mostly that before the Clintons moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Nancy Reagan had plenty of critics, but she exercised power behind the scenes, and so the back-biting was also mostly couched in behind-the-scenes disgruntlement.

Now Michelle, who has said little to draw the fire, is taking cannon balls of criticism. And Cindy McCain, her candidate's spouse equivalent for the GOP, is getting a relatively free ride. What gives?

Well, let's see. Cindy McCain stands by her man. Literally, like a post. She rarely speaks two words, neither of which would ever be remotely considered controversial. She is interviewed for a national women's magazine and the most we find out is that she prefers Lucky jeans, size zero. How charming.

What does she think about her husband's candidacy? About the war? About the state of women's health? About employment opportunities for women? About the fact that women still earn less than 75 cents on the dollar compared to men? Does she think at all?

Of course she does. She's not worth $100 million for nothing. She is chair of a $300-million-a-year company, Hensley & Co., which she took over in 2000 when her father died. She has bachelor's and master's degrees in special education from the University of Southern California and started a successful therapy pilot program, then wrote a book about it in 1978. She has been a tireless supporter of various charitable organizations throughout her life. And she has raised three children.

She hasn't been completely silent on the campaign trail. There have been rare occasions when she's disagreed with Bush policy (the war in Iraq) and she was one of those who piled on when Michelle was being criticized for her comment about being proud of her country, which was overblown, of course.

Here's the point, if Cindy wants to be quiet and express her opinions on the pillow at night, that's OK. If Michelle is more vocal as a marital - and potentially presidential partner - that's OK, too. Candidate's spouses who are smart women shouldn't be faulted, no matter their style. Each should be free to choose how they want to make a difference as First Lady. Frankly, I prefer women who are willing to express their opinions publicly, but I'm OK with the other model.

What's not OK are the virulent attacks on either style. It's divisive and ugly.

Oh, and that hand-bump thing? My white, middle-class daughter and her high school friends have been doing it for years. Seems Michelle and Barack are just tuned into the youth culture more than some of us. I think that's a good thing.