by Amanda Erickson
Gina McCauley's blog on African-American women in pop culture has never attracted this kind of attention.
The 3-year-old site has a mostly African-American audience. But she launched a new Michelle Obama Watch blog in June to monitor and critique media coverage of the potential first lady, and since then, feminists of all colors have been linking and commenting.
"I think new bridges are being built, and I'm excited about that," said McCauley, 32, of Austin, Texas, who noted the response to the new blog has been exponentially greater from feminist bloggers around the country.
Her experience reflects what some hope will become a trend--that interest in ensuring fair coverage of Michelle Obama will bring together black and white feminists who have often had different goals and visions for the feminist movement.
Obama, who speaks openly about the challenges of balancing a successful career with the responsibilities of raising two young daughters, has the potential to reach a wide spectrum of women. Lately she's been hit by a spate of unflattering--and some say sexist--media portrayals.
Conservative pundits accused her of being unpatriotic. One blogger circulated unsubstantiated rumors that Obama gave a speech about the sins of "whitey." Fox News, in on-screen text that was quickly removed, called her a "baby mama," a derogatory term for an unwed mother. The conservative journal National Review wrote a cover story tagging her as "Mrs. Grievance."
But the reaction, many black feminists complain, has fallen far short of the groundswell of anger from Hillary Clinton supporters who thought their candidate had been treated unfairly during coverage of her ultimately unsuccessful presidential quest.
Clinton has been more widely subjected to criticism, to be sure, but she was a candidate and Obama is a candidate's wife. Still, now that Sen. Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee, Michelle Obama's supporters worry that the attacks will get worse.
"You just don't hear the voices as loud as you did" when Clinton was attacked, said Mary Curtis, a Charlotte Observer columnist who wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post about feminism and Obama. "You're reminded of Sojourner Truth asking, `Ain't I a woman?' "
Truth was an abolitionist and women's rights activist in the 19th Century, when the women's movement started with a clear goal: universal suffrage. But when black men were given the right to vote first, African-American women supported the decision, said Farah Griffin, an English and African-American studies professor at Columbia University.
White women, on the other hand, saw the move as a slap in the face. "Why Sambo before sister?" they asked, according to Griffin, raising a specter of racism into the campaign for women's rights.
The question of competing aims continued into the 1960s, as white women pushed for equal treatment in public life. They lobbied for equal pay and better representation in top corporate and government positions.
African-American women, however, sometimes chose instead to link issues of race and gender, lobbying for better quality of life for families and the poor. Author Alice Walker coined the term "womanism" to describe the movement, according to her daughter, feminist scholar Rebecca Walker.
These tensions bubbled to the surface during the Democratic primary campaign, when some black feminists felt as though they were again being asked to pick which factor might influence their vote--sex or race.
"There were some voices saying that if you're a woman and a feminist, you need to be for Hillary Clinton," Curtis said. "I felt like my very feminism was being questioned."
Similar to her husband espousing a new kind of political accommodation in Washington, Michelle Obama has tried to move beyond the sex-race divisions by appealing to both camps.
Barack Obama's campaign has tapped into that, turning her into an emissary to women. She has kicked off "Women for Obama" campaigns and hosted round-table talks with women across the country.
That appeals to women like Brittany Gwynn, 19, a University of Maryland student who embraces Obama's ability to be a strong woman and also a loving wife.
"I'm in college hoping to go to law school, and sometimes I feel like the men in my life ... are intimidated by my accomplishment," she wrote in an e-mail.
Obama, she said, has shown that it is possible to balance her goals with the needs of her family.
"She is a woman who is a force in her own right but also one who doesn't feel the need to be in the center of attention," Gwynn wrote. "I see her as a role model to women in my generation."
That has been true for many younger fans who have created Facebook groups and online fan sites lauding the potential first lady for her style and substance.
There do not appear to be similar Internet sites monitoring coverage of Cindy McCain, wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that Cindy McCain is less well-known than Michelle Obama.
As the presidential campaign unfolds, feminist supporters see the lack of attention toward Michelle Obama by some prominent feminists as an example of a fractured movement.
"Michelle Obama is getting short shrift ... from the mainstream white feminists who were screaming and screaming about Hillary Clinton," said Andrea Plaid, a Brooklyn-based blogger who contributes to Michelle Obama Watch.
White women bloggers, she said, still have trouble admitting their own prejudices. "There's still a sense of silence," she said. "People are shuffling their feet."
Not all white feminists agree. "I don't really see sexism in the coverage of Michelle Obama," said former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.
Meagan Fredette, a Chicagoan who writes for Michelle Obama Watch, is hopeful. She's excited by the variety of people who visit the site, seeing comments from men, women, liberals and conservatives.
What impresses her most, though, is the number of women's Web sites that have been keeping up with her work. The blog Feministe, which had been closely following Clinton's race, recently began reporting more extensively on Michelle Obama.
Other mainstream women's groups, such as the National Organization for Women, are closely monitoring the coverage. NOW created its own online Media Wall of Shame to highlight what it says were unfair articles about women during the 2008 campaign. Reports on Michelle Obama are featured regularly.
"I think that women have become very sensitive to media sexism," NOW President Kim Gandy said. "They will be watching."
But Murray Lipp, a Clinton supporter and the founder of Hillary Clinton Forum, an online group dedicated to discussing the New York senator, said many Clinton supporters who use his forum still are angry--at the Obamas for not doing more to stop the slights against Clinton, and at the media for its coverage.
It's unfair, he said, to expect those supporters to simply get up and lobby for the wife of the man who beat Clinton.
"The wounds are so deep," he said. "It'll be a time before those are healed."