Skip to main content Accessibility help

Michelle Obama as a Political Symbol: Race, Gender, and Public Opinion toward the First Lady

  • Alex Badas (a1) and Katelyn E. Stauffer (a2)


Popular commentary surrounding Michelle Obama focuses on the symbolic importance of her tenure as the nation's first African American first lady. Despite these assertions, relatively few studies have examined public opinion toward Michelle Obama and the extent to which race and gender influenced public evaluations of her. Even fewer studies have examined how the intersection of race and gender influenced political attitudes toward Michelle Obama and her ability to serve as a meaningful political symbol. Using public opinion polls from 2008 to 2017 and data from the Black Women in America survey, we examine public opinion toward Michelle Obama as a function of respondents’ race, gender, and the intersection between the two. We find that African Americans were generally more favorable toward Michelle Obama than white Americans, with minimal differences between men and women. Although white women were no more likely than white men to view Michelle Obama favorably, we find that they were more likely to have information on Michelle Obama's “Let's Move” initiative. Most importantly, we find that Michelle Obama served as a unique political symbol for African American women and that her presence in politics significantly increased black women's evaluation of their race-gender group.



Hide All

The authors would like to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback and suggestions.



Hide All
Alexander-Floyd, Nikol. 2007. Gender, Race, and Nationalism in Contemporary Black Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Alexander-Floyd, Nikol. 2017. “Why Political Scientists Don't Study Black Women, but Historians and Sociologists Do: On Intersectionality and the Remapping of the Study of Black Political Women.” In Black Women in Politics: Identity, Power, and Justice in the New Millennium, eds. Mitchell, Michael and Covin, David. New York: Routledge, 317.
Badas, Alex, and Stauffer, Katelyn E.. 2018. “Someone Like Me: Descriptive Representation and Support for Supreme Court Nominees.” Political Research Quarterly 71 (1): 127–42.
Block, Ray Jr., and Haynes, Christina S.. 2017. “Taking to the Airwaves: Using Content Analyses of Survey Toplines and Filmographies to Test the ‘Michelle Obama Image Transformation’ (MOIT) Hypothesis.” Black Women in Politics: Identity, Power, and Justice in the New Millennium, eds. Mitchell, Michael and Covin, David. New York: Routledge, 97114.
Box-Steffensmeier, Janet M., De Boef, Suzanna, and Lin, Tse-Min. 2004. “The Dynamics of the Partisan Gender Gap.” American Political Science Review 98 (3): 515–28.
Brown, Nadia. 2014a. “Black Women's Pathways to the Statehouse: The Impact of Race/Gender Identities.” National Political Science Review 16: 8196.
Brown, Nadia. 2014b. “Political Participation of Women of Color: An Intersectional Analysis.” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 35 (4): 315–48.
Burrell, Barbara C. 2000. “Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady: The People's Perspective.” Social Science Journal 37 (4): 529–46.
Burrell, Barbara C. 2001. Public Opinion, the First Ladyship, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. New York: Routledge.
Burrell, Barbara, Elder, Laurel, and Frederick, Brian. 2011. “Polls and Elections: From Hillary to Michelle: Public Opinion and the Spouses of Presidential Candidates.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41 (1): 156–76.
Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E. and Stokes, Donald E.. 1966. The American Voter. New York: Wiley.
Carroll, Susan J. 2005. “Voter Choices: Meet You at the Gender Gap.” In Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, eds. Carroll, Susan J. and Fox, Richard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 7496.
Cassese, Erin C., Barnes, Tiffany D., and Branton, Regina P.. 2015. “Racializing Gender: Public Opinion at the Intersection.” Politics & Gender 11 (1): 126.
Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). 2018. “Women of Color in Elective Office 2018.” (accessed December 3, 2018).
Cohen, Cathy J. 2003. “A Portrait of Continuing Marginality: The Study of Women of Color in American Politics.” In Women and American Politics: New Questions, New Directions, ed. Carroll, Susan J.. New York: Oxford University Press, 190213.
Cohen, Jeffrey E. 2000. “The Polls: Public Favorability toward the First Lady, 1993–1999.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30 (3): 575–85.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. “Distinguishing Features of Black Feminist Thought.” In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, by Collins, Patricia Hill. New York: Routledge, 2143.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2004. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989: 139–67.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Identity Politics, Intersectionality, and Violence against Women.” Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–99.
Dawson, Michael C. 1994. Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Duerst-Lahti, Georgia. 1997. “Reconceiving Theories of Power: Consequences of Masculinism in the Executive Branch.” In The Other Elites: Women, Politics, and Power in the Executive Branch, eds. Borrelli, MaryAnne and Martin, Janet M.. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1132.
Duerst-Lahti, Georgia. 2014. “Presidential Elections: Gendered Space and the Case of 2012.” In Gender and Elections, eds. Carroll, Susan J. and Fox, Richard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1648.
Eksterowicz, Anthony, and Sulfaro, Valerie A.. 2002. “The Presidential Partnerships of First Ladies and Their Influence on Public Policy.” Current Politics and Economics of the United States 4 (4): 307–28.
Elder, Laurel, and Frederick, Brian. 2017. “Perceptions of Candidate Spouses in the 2012 Presidential Election: The Role of Gender, Race, Religion, and Partisanship.” Politics, Groups, and Identities. Published online on June 23.
Elder, Laurel, and Greene, Steven. 2016. “The Politics of Walmart Moms: Parenthood and Political Attitudes in the 2012 Election.” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 37 (4): 369–93.
Erickson, Keith V., and Thomson, Stephanie. 2012. “First Lady International Diplomacy: Performing Gendered Roles on the World Stage.” Southern Communication Journal 77 (3): 239–62.
Fowler, Floyd J. Jr. 2013. Survey Research Methods. Los Angeles: Sage.
Gay, Claudine and Tate, Katherine. 1998. “Doubly Bound: The Impact of Gender and Race on the Politics of Black Women.” Political Psychology 19 (1): 169–84.
Githens, Marianne, and Prestage, Jewel Limar, eds. 1977. A Portrait of Marginality: The Political Behavior of the American Woman. New York: D. McKay.
Holman, Mirya R. 2016. “The Differential Effect of Resources on Political Participation Across Gender and Racial Groups.” In Distinct Identities: Minority Women in U.S. Politics, eds. Brown, Nadia E. and Gershon, Sarah Allen. New York: Routledge, 2944.
Huddy, Leonie, and Carey, Tony E.. 2009. “Group Politics Redux: Race and Gender in the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries.” Politics & Gender 5 (1): 8196.
Jewell, K Sue. 2012. From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of US Social Policy. New York: Routledge.
Jordan-Zachary, Julia. 2007. “Am I a Black Woman, or a Woman Who Is Black?Politics & Gender 3 (2): 254–64.
Junn, Jane. 1997. Assimilating or Coloring Participation? Gender, Race, and Democratic Political Participation. New York: New York University Press.
Junn, Jane, and Brown, Nadia. 2008. “What Revolution? Incorporating Intersectionality in Women and Politics.” In Political Women and American Democracy, eds. Wolbrecht, Christina, Beckwith, Karen, and Baldez, Lisa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 6478.
Kaufmann, Karen M., and Petrocik, John R.. 1999. “The Changing Politics of American Men: Understanding the Sources of the Gender Gap.” American Journal of Political Science 43 (3): 864–87.
King, Deborah K. 1988. “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14 (1): 4272.
Knickrehm, Kay M., and Teske, Robin. 2003. “First Ladies and Policy Making: Crossing the Public/Private Divide.” In The Presidential Companion: Readings on the First Ladies, eds. Watson, Robert P. and Eksterowicz, Anthony J.. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 235–51.
Knuckey, Jonathan, and Kim, Myunghee. 2016. “Evaluations of Michelle Obama as First Lady: The Role of Racial Resentment.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 46 (2): 365–86.
Lewis, Taylor. 2016. “President and Michelle Obama's Legacy Lives On.” Essence, October.
Liu, Shan-Jan Sarah, and Banaszak, Lee Ann. 2017. “Do Government Positions Held by Women Matter? A Cross-National Examination of Female Ministers’ Impacts on Women's Political Participation.” Politics & Gender 13 (1): 132–62.
MacManus, Susan A., and Quecan, Andrew F.. 2008. “Spouses as Campaign Surrogates: Strategic Appearances by Presidential and Vice-Presidential Candidates’ Wives in the 2004 Election.” PS: Political Science & Politics 41 (2): 337–48.
Mansbridge, Jane, and Tate, Katherine. 1992. “Race Trumps Gender: The Thomas Nomination in the Black Community.” PS: Political Science & Politics 25 (3): 488–92.
Morgan, Jana, and Buice, Melissa. 2013. “Latin American Attitudes toward Women in Politics: The Influence of Elite Cues, Female Advancement, and Individual Characteristics.” American Political Science Review 107 (4): 644–62.
Mughan, Anthony, and Burden, Barry C.. 1995. “The Candidates’ Wives.” In Democracy's Feast: Elections in America, ed. Weisberg, Herbert F.. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 136–52.
Mughan, Anthony, and Burden, Barry C.. 1998. “Hillary Clinton and the President's Reelection.” In Reelection 1996: How Americans Voted, ed. Weisberg, Herbert F. and Box-Steffensmeier, Janet M.. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 111–24.
Norrander, Barbara. 1999. “The Evolution of the Gender Gap.” Public Opinion Quarterly 63 (4): 566–76.
Orey, Byron D'Andr'a, Smooth, Wendy, Adams, Kimberly S., and Harris-Clark, Kisha. 2007. “Race and Gender Matter: Refining Models of Legislative Policy Making in State Legislatures.” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 28 (3–4): 97119.
Parry-Giles, Shawn J., and Blair, Diane M.. 2002. “The Rise of the Rhetorical First Lady: Politics, Gender Ideology, and Women's Voice, 1789–2002.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5 (4): 565–99.
Philpot, Tasha S., and Walton, Hanes. 2007. “One of Our Own: Black Female Candidates and the Voters Who Support Them.” American Journal of Political Science 51 (1): 4962.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. 1967. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Reese, Laura A., and Brown, Ronald E.. 1995. “The Effects of Religious Messages on Racial Identity and System Blame among African Americans.” Journal of Politics 57 (1): 2443.
Scharrer, Erica, and Bissell, Kim. 2000. “Overcoming Traditional Boundaries: The Role of Political Activity in Media Coverage of First Ladies.” Women & Politics 21 (1): 5583.
Schwindt-Bayer, Leslie A., and Mishler, William. 2005. “An Integrated Model of Women's Representation.” Journal of Politics 67 (2): 407–28.
Sigelman, Lee, and Welch, Susan. 1984. “Race, Gender, and Opinion toward Black and Female Presidential Candidates.” Public Opinion Quarterly 48 (2): 467–75.
Simonton, Dean Keith. 1996. “Presidents’ Wives and First Ladies: On Achieving Eminence within a Traditional Gender Role.” Sex Roles 35 (5–6): 309–36.
Smooth, Wendy. 2006. “Intersectionality in Electoral Politics: A Mess Worth Making.” Politics & Gender 2 (3): 400414.
Smooth, Wendy. 2016. “Intersectionality and Women's Advancement in the Discipline and across the Academy.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 4 (3): 513–28.
Stokes-Brown, Atiya Kai, and Dolan, Kathleen. 2010. “Race, Gender, and Symbolic Representation: African American Female Candidates as Mobilizing Agents.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 20 (4): 473–94.
Sulfaro, Valerie A. 2001. “Political Advertisements and Decision-Making Shortcuts in the 2000 Election.” Contemporary Argumentation and Debate 22: 8099.
Sulfaro, Valerie A. 2007. “Affective Evaluations of First Ladies: A Comparison of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 37 (3): 486514.
Tate, Katherine. 1994. From Protest to Politics: The New Black Voters in American Elections. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thompson, Krissah. 2012. “Michelle Obama: ‘I Haven't Had Time to … Reflect’ on Being First Black First Lady.” Washington Post, October 10. (accessed November 14, 2018).
Tien, Charles, Checchia, Regan, and Miller, Arthur. 1999. “The Impact of First Wives on Presidential Campaigns and Elections.” In Women in Politics: Outsiders or Insiders?, ed. Whitaker, Lois Duke. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall, 149–68.
Winter, Nicholas. 2000. Gendered and Re-gendered: Public Opinion and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago.
Wright, Lauren A. 2016. On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Zeldes, Geri Alumit. 2009. “Maverick, Escort, or Style Setter—TV News Framing of Candidates’ Spouses during the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Elections.” Electronic News 3 (4): 193213.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Michelle Obama as a Political Symbol: Race, Gender, and Public Opinion toward the First Lady

  • Alex Badas (a1) and Katelyn E. Stauffer (a2)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.