What if Michelle Obama’s place is in (or at least residing over) the kitchen?

While listening to the NPR story “Former White House Chef on Oval Office Tastes,” I was taken aback by what seemed a sexist comment by former executive chef Walter Scheib. When he claimed that it is Michelle Obama’s duty to choose the new chef and determine who will cook the best meals for her family, What century is this man living in?, I asked myself. How can he assume it is HER duty to make this kitchen-based (read:feminine) choice?!?

However, when I got home and did a read-a-around, I discovered that it is tradition for the First Lady to select the White House Chef. According to Hugging the Coast, this has been customary since JFK’s presidency.

Once the First Lady has chosen said chef, s/he (usually he, up until the first woman executive chef was chosen by Laura Bush in 2005) works with the First lady to plan daily menus, reception  menus, event menus, and state dinner menus. Wow, all those degrees will certainly come in handy for this task, Michelle!

Further, once Michelle Obama officially becomes First Lady, she will inherit many duties such as the above that are socially constructed as feminine. As Lauren Stiller Riklen writes in her article, “First lady: a job worth a paycheck”:

Since George Washington’s time, the one widely accepted function of the role has been that of hostess, presiding over the considerable social and ceremonial events that take place at the White House.

While many First Ladies have taken strong political stances and served in ways far beyond that of “hostess,” this “wifely support” concept of the First Lady’s role still reigns.  Much attention is paid to how she looks, dresses, acts, smiles, walks, etc, etc. Much criticism reigns down when she is seen as too strong, too political, too opinionated, too outspoken. Much better that she serve as presidential arm candy and meal planner! (For more in this vein, see my earlier post here.)

I wonder, if Hilary Clinton had won the nomination and was now president elect, would there be talk of who Bill would choose as head chef? Or, would this ‘womanly’ task be given to Hilary, Chelsea, or another female member of staff?

On a related note, why the hell when a man cooks is he a “chef” but when a woman does, she’s a “cook”? Granted, this is changing, but still most celebrated chefs are male – and so are the three top contenders for the next executive chef!

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Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 9:44 am  Comments (13)  

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. oh, how trite and quaint. I would make a terrible first lady. I’d be like “a round of cheese and peanut butter sandwiches for everyone, Pierre!”

    -CC

  2. CC,
    Sounds like you would make a great first lady for one Mr. GW. Ha! Now doesn’t that make you tempted to give up your onely-ness?

  3. While the media often screws this up, cook and chief are supposed to be distinguishable by attained degrees, I believe–how far you’ve gotten in culinary school.

  4. was anybody else as repulsed by the media coverage of the michelle obama the week following baracks presidential acceptance speech? if nobody else seemed to notice the only topic discussed when michelle obama was the topic at hand was her dress, her FUCKING DRESS! completely overlook the womans degree from princeton university and her law degree from harvard school of law, oh no no no we have much bigger issues.. shes wearing an ill-fitted black and red dress that is clearly not if the jacky-O style of every presiding first lady before her! on the other hand i failed to stumble across any such article on the topic of baracks choice of dress that evening. ugh, never underestimate the stupidity of people!

  5. Karak,
    Hmmm, I didn’t know that about the degrees. I would hazard a guess that a woman is more likely to be referred to as a “cook” than a man though, regardless of how many culinary degrees she has. Conversely, give a man a spatula, and people will give him the chef title! It’s the old deflate the woman, inflate the man trick…

    Jesse,
    I try to avoid mainstream news/gossip media because it repulses me generally.
    The focus on her appearance is hardly suprising given our appearance-obsesses, sexist media. Reminds me of the freak out over Hilary’s cleavage… Yeah, Bush is running an illegal war, but too much cleavage is the real news.

  6. why the hell when a man cooks is he a “chef” but when a woman does, she’s a “cook”?

    When a woman cooks it is deemed a labor of love and worthless. The minute the task becomes commodified and a profit can be made from it, then it is no longer womens work. The chef/cook thing is the perfect example of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy work together to ensure that women are second class citizens.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, capitalism and patriarchy reinforce one another is so many ways right down to who does the dishes with no thanks and who gets to be on tv as celebrity chefs…

  7. It may be her “duty” but all it takes is her to say “Forget this, hire someone who cares!”, and they will have to. They can’t make her, and are unlikly to even try. As the article says, up until Laura Bush, the executice chef was male. Does that mean up until then the chef had to be? Possibly. But this time four years latter (or hopefully 8 ;) ) Will they be saying “Until Michelle Obama the First Lady had the duty of x, y and z (x, y and possibly z being traditionally female roles)”? Here’s hoping.

    • Jared,
      I do hope there will be many “Until Michelle Obama was the first lady…” moments!
      However, if she does say “Forget this” and shirks traditional “Firs Lady Duties” I can only imagine the racist and sexist commentary that will ensue…
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. listen okay,
    ALL the first ladies were smart. They almost all went to college and attained degree’s. Don’t tell me Michelle Obama deserves more attention for her degree’s because shes a black fist lady. They were all ignored in terms of educational attainment. Mostly to just a mention of the top tier schools they went to .

    What bothers me it that they are all relegated to activism roles. Mostly ( yes) feminine roles. YOU know, helping the poor and children? I’d like to see her doing more than that. Lets she how SHE defines her own role as first lady, and not what we want.

    • Asada,
      I beg to differ. I do not find Laura Bush to be smart. What are you basing this claim on? GW went to college too — going to college does not a smart person make! With money and clout, degrees can be “bought.”
      I didn’t say Michelle deserves more attention. Don’t know where you got that…
      And “relegated to activism roles”??? If only. They are relegated to “faux activism” and photo-ops. If they REALLY were doing things to help eradicate poverty, to help children, that would be GREAT. Although you seem to indicate it wouldn’t…
      What more would you like to see her doing?

  9. “residing over the kitchen.” She lives in a room above the kitchen? Try “presiding.”

    “Much criticism reigns down.” Nope! That should be “rains.”

    Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are we?

  10. Wow, since you have so much time to monitor errors of others, perhaps you could take some time to come up with insults that don’t rely on cliches. And even though ‘rains’ is the grammatically correct term, reigns works for various reasons. I imagine you of such high and mighty intellect (and tired pedantry) can figure out why.


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