Lovely Lady Helpmate

So I'm reading the cover story about Michelle Obama in the latest issue of People (which you've got to buy the magazine to read), and it's quite a good interview, as far as these things go. (Obama is always just awesome, but the interviews tend to be sorta depressingly patriarchy-affirming.)

But one thing I notice is that the article repeatedly refers to her as President Obama's "helpmate." The article summary/subhead reads (emphasis mine):
Just one month on the job, the First Lady takes a break to talk to PEOPLE about loving her family's new life in the White House, her juggling act as mom-in-chief and helpmate to leader of the free world—and, yes, when we'll get to meet the First Puppy.
Then, in the second paragraph:
She is, all at once, so many different things to so many different people: the first African-American First Lady; mom to two very young girls; Ivy League-educated lawyer on hiatus from her own career; fashion icon; traditional hostess and wifely helpmate.
She recognizes that "helpmate" has taken on a whole new meaning as she watches her husband getting grayer by the month.
Why the sudden quotes? No clue. If it's her word, she's not quoted in the article referring to herself as "helpmate," and I can't find any other articles in which she's quoted defining herself as her husband's "helpmate," either.

Finally, in the last paragraph again:
For now, she's just focused on the job at hand, saying she wants to live up to being the helpmate and role model Americans are looking for in a First Lady.
WTF? It's such an odd word to use once, no less four times in the same article. It's weirdly belittling.

The most obvious word to use would be partner, which I'm guessing was not used for the very reason I like the word—its implicit suggestion of equality.

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