'Age of Michelle Obama'

n a small Upper Marlboro, Md., townhouse, three generations of black women live together and often wrestle with common stereotypes. From left are Ruth Lawrence Driver, 69; her daughter, Tracie Gaines Nelson, 46; and Nelson's daughters, Alani, 17, and Niya, 16. Driver's 63-year-old cousin also lives with them.

Rich or poor, educated or not, black women sometimes feel as though myths are stalking them like shadows, their lives reduced to a string of labels.

The angry black woman. The strong black woman. The unfeeling black woman. The manless black woman.

"Black women haven't really defined themselves," said author Sophia Nelson, who urges her fellow sisters to take control of their image. "We were always defined as workhorses, strong. We carry the burdens, we carry the family. We don't need. We don't want."

In a new nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, a complex portrait emerges of black women who feel confident but vulnerable, who have high self-esteem and see physical beauty as important, who find career success more vital to them than marriage. The survey, which includes interviews with more than 800 black women, represents the most extensive exploration of the lives and views of black women in decades.

Religion is essential to most black women's lives; being in a romantic relationship is not, the poll shows.

Nearly three-quarters of African-American women say now is a good time to be a black woman in America, and yet a similar proportion worry about having enough money to pay their bills.

Half of black women surveyed call racism a "big problem" in the country; nearly half worry about being discriminated against.

Eighty-five percent say they are satisfied with their own lives, but one-fifth say they are often treated with less respect than other people.

The poll's findings and dozens of follow-up discussions reflect the conversations black women are having among themselves at church halls after Bible study, at happy hours after work, in college lounges after listening to lectures by the likes of Nelson, 45, who five years ago quit her job at a big D.C. law firm to write a book, "Black Woman Redefined."

She often tells young black women to forget what the outside world projects for them and be bold:

"You can play this however you want to. You're living in the age of Michelle Obama."

It is a time in which one-third of employed black women work in management or professional jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a record number are attending college. Black women with college degrees earn nearly as much as similarly educated white women. The number of businesses owned by black women has nearly doubled in the last decade to more than 900,000, according to census figures.

And Wal-Mart recently named Rosalind Brewer chief executive of Sam's Club, making her the first African-American to be chief executive for a business unit of the world's largest retailer.

It is an age in which young black women see more options for themselves than ever. They can run a cable network (like Oprah Winfrey), lead a Fortune 500 company (like Xerox's Ursula Burns), become an international pop icon (like Beyonce).

Secretary of State? Condi Rice has been there, done that.

But even in this "age of Michelle Obama," black women are rethinking the meaning of success and fulfillment. Many are concluding that self-empowerment is the road to happiness, and happiness does not require a mate.

Forty percent of black women say getting married is very important, compared with 55 percent of white women. This finding is among a number of significant differences in the outlooks and experiences of black and white women, according to the poll.

Here are others:

More than a fifth of black women say being wealthy is very important, compared with one in 20 white women.

Sixty-seven percent of black women describe themselves as having high self-esteem, compared with 43 percent of white women.

Forty percent of black women say they experience frequent stress, compared with 51 percent of white women.

Nearly half of black women fear being a victim of violent crime, compared with about a third of white women.

"We have depth. We have pain. We have bad. We have good. We have complexity," said Beverly Bond, a disc jockey based in New York and founder of the philanthropic effort Black Girls Rock! "We need to see the well-roundedness of who we are.We need to see everyone."

History of exclusion

Black women were once described as the "mules of the world" by Zora Neale Hurston, whose biting literature made her one of the most influential black writers of the early 20th century. Her reference to mules -- the workhorses of the South -- pointed to the backbreaking manual labor that black women were expected to perform and the limits placed on their vocations.

Throughout history, black women have been overrepresented in the workforce compared with other women and have come to embrace work as an enduring part of their sense of self, said Constance C.R. White.

"Career for black women has always been about economic necessity and also a sense of economic destiny," said White, editor of the nation's oldest black women's magazine, Essence.

Following the civil rights movement, black women moved from manual labor and domestic work, where they had been concentrated, into a wider range of professions.

In 1977, Patricia Roberts Harris became the first black woman to lead a department of the federal government, entering the line of succession for the presidency.

When Harris was appointed to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said her gender and race made her a "two for one" and called the hoopla around her nomination the result of "tragic exclusion."

At the same time, poor black women were disparaged as "welfare queens," a depiction that took root during Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign. Reagan, without specifically citing race, repeatedly told the story of a "welfare queen" from Chicago's South Side who drove a Cadillac, had 80 aliases and brazenly ripped off the government for benefits.

Journalists tried to track down the cheat, but the truth was less salacious. One South Side woman was convicted of stealing less than $10,000.

Black women who don't have a long list of credentials behind their names, those who aren't regarded as "superstars," sometimes feel their climb is too steep. In fact, a quarter of black women surveyed in the Post-Kaiser poll said they often perceive that others think they are not smart. This perception is shared by both educated and less-educated black women.

"Despite miraculous income and educational gains for generations, the social and economic advancement of black women has always been precarious," said Paula J. Giddings, who teaches at Smith College and has written about the political and social history of black women. "All of our wealth and all of the generational aspiration can disappear -- just evaporate -- if you lose your house, your health, if you have to take care of a needy family member or if you can't get that loan to continue college."

Staring down obstacles has become routine, what some black women described as a "make-it-happen" attitude.

Nearly six in 10 black women say they worry about providing a good education for their kids. Part of that worry stems from the legacy of segregation and discrimination in the country that prevented many black families from accumulating wealth to pass down to succeeding generations.

But there is also this, according to interviews with black women: Many were not raised to expect that they could marry a fairy-tale Prince Charming who would take care of them, provide for the family, leave them with no worries.

"In our upbringing, we're not raised to be princesses," said Virginia Boateng, a budget analyst who works for the Education Department. "We're told, 'Yes, you are pretty, but you better have something for yourself.' "

The marriage discussion

Introduce marriage, and you enter one of the most tender discussions black women are having among themselves: Are African-American women choosing career over romance? Are single black women lonely? Is there a shortage of eligible, desirable black men? Can black women have it all?

"This idea that there are no successful single black men -- we've been hearing that since Terry McMillan's 'Waiting to Exhale,' " said Janell Hobson, an associate professor of women's studies at Albany State University. "It's almost as if to say Michelle Obama may have Barack Obama, but you black women can't have the same thing."

Hobson, who is 38 and single, has no plans to settle. But she has to contend with her worried aunties asking at every family gathering, "Still no one, huh?" She answers politely and said she is not stressed.

Black women are increasingly open to looking beyond the pool of black men for mates. Sixty-seven percent of unmarried black women in the Post-Kaiser poll say they would be willing to marry someone of another race.

But so far, that willingness is not matched by experience. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center that looked at the rates of interracial marriage among newlyweds in 2008, just 9 percent of black women married a spouse of a different race -- a rate that was less than half that of black men.

The reasons for the gap between black women's interest in interracial marriage and their rates of interracial marriage are complex, according to experts who have researched the subject. Studies of online dating, for instance, have shown that black women are less likely than other women to receive messages of interest from men of other races.

Researchers attribute that to a social hierarchy that still undervalues them and unflattering stereotypes of black women -- loud, aggressive -- that remain in the popular culture.

Other single black women have real concerns about the dating scene. A promising black female undergraduate student whom Hobson counseled about her prospects for doctoral studies last year said she was not pursuing graduate school because she feared spending time on an advanced degree might mean she would end up unmarried.

It might sound nonsensical, but it has been a long time since black women have thought of college campuses as the place to find a soul mate.

Black women have outpaced black men at universities for more than three decades, a development that is now universal. Women of all races and ethnicities outnumber men on college campuses.

Breaking down stereotypes

In a small townhouse in an Upper Marlboro cul-de-sac live five single black women -- three generations of one family.

The eldest is 69-year-old Ruth Lawrence Driver, whom her granddaughters call "Gammy." In the summer of 1993, Driver and her only child, Tracie Gaines Nelson, moved in when they were divorcing their husbands at the same time. It's where Nelson's two teenage daughters, Alani and Niya, have grown up.

The fifth woman is Driver's 63-year-old cousin, who moved in last year to save enough money to return to college and finally get the degree that had eluded her for nearly three decades.

The house in Prince George's County is a place where its occupants wrestle, sometimes uncomfortably, with the stereotypes of black women.

Among the favorite television shows of Alani, 17, and Niya, 16, is "Bad Girls Club," about a group of young women who move into a house in a new city for a few months. On the show, the black girls are often the most dramatic -- yelling, screaming, cursing.

"They try to make us seem so mean," Alani said.

She and her sister also watch hip-hop music videos where black women's primary role is as gyrating backdrops to male rappers. And then there are "Basketball Wives," "Real Housewives of Atlanta" and "Love and Hip Hop," all reality programs in which the stars are back-stabbing, conniving, bickering figures.

"I hope it's just a passing fad, that they won't internalize all of these images," Driver said.

Nelson talks to her daughters about the differences between reality and fantasy and looks for positive images of black women to put before them. She enrolled Alani in debutante classes organized by her sorority last year and sent Niya to a leadership workshop at which she met black lawyers and businesswomen.

And the teenagers have models of ambition and assertiveness at home. Their Gammy attended segregated primary schools in North Carolina, where teachers used old textbooks handed down from white schools.

She attended a historically black university in 1960 and flourished in spite of the racism and sexism that was present around her. Now, she is a retired teacher who takes water aerobics classes, goes hand dancing at a nearby senior center and attends church every Sunday.

And the girls' mom? She also went to a black college, and she studied for her master's in social work while raising two daughters alone. Now she is a social worker with a tightknit group of black sister-friends.

But even with an advanced degree and a respectable job, she could not comfortably support her daughters as a single mother without the help of her mother. Like nearly three-quarters of the black women in the Post-Kaiser survey, Nelson sometimes worries about having enough money to pay her bills. She is constantly telling her daughters to search for careers that will pay them six figures, hoping they will have more financial comfort than she does.

"If a paycheck is missing, they are going to feel it," Nelson said.

In this townhouse, what they feel most is love. There's always been more laughing than yelling.

"Living in a household of women is portrayed to be this horrible place, but it's not," Alani said. "It's hard sometimes."

Niya interrupts: "There are a lot of lessons that come out of this house."