The First (Black) Lady

19 Pages Posted: 28 May 2009 Last revised: 10 Jun 2009

See all articles by Verna L. Williams

Verna L. Williams

University of Cincinnati - College of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2009


First Lady Michelle Obama is an accomplished woman in her own right, defying racial, gender, and class stereotypes to excel in private practice and public service. Yet, during the campaign, a different portrait of this remarkable woman emerged that was noteworthy for its persistence and vitriol. Characterized as bitter, angry, and sassy, among other things, Michelle Obama exemplified life at the intersections of race and gender. Depicting Mrs. Obama in this intensely negative light, her critics essentially asked: How can Michelle Obama be First Lady when she’s no lady at all?

This essay examines the social meaning of the First Lady, an unelected position lacking any Constitutionally-defined job description. As the discourse during the campaign suggested, this role is a national institution of great significance, largely because it personifies domesticity and traditional femininity. This essay argues that, as traditionally understood, the role of First Lady supports privileged white femininity. The essay further argues that the gender and racial norms contributing to the traditional First Lady trope exemplify the intertwined nature of racism and sexism, and particularly, how together they have been used to justify Black subordination. In this regard, the essay discusses how African Americans have embraced gender conformance as a way of attaining acceptance and status within the existing social order, specifically through the “Black lady” trope, which has been applied to Michelle Obama in response to the hostility she confronted in the media. Finally, the essay proposes ways in which Mrs. Obama’s First Ladyship has transformative potential.

Suggested Citation

Williams, Verna L., The First (Black) Lady (June 1, 2009). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 86, p. 833, 2009, U of Cincinnati Public Law Research Paper No. 09-05, Available at SSRN:

Verna L. Williams (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210040
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040
United States
513-556-1220 (Phone)
513-556-1236 (Fax)

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