Mother, daughter, lawyer, leader, public servant. Wife to one of the most powerful men on the planet. First African-American First Lady Michelle Obama is a force to be reckoned with. Her achievements – both in her personal capacity and as the First Lady of the United States – are inspiring and impressive.
A press secretary once said, “She’s smart, she’s successful, well-liked and popular. Long before there was a Barack Obama, there was a Michelle Robinson who was a star in her own right.”
Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, she grew up in a brick house on the South Side of Chicago. She and her older brother, Craig, enjoyed a stable, traditional family life with happily married parents – a pattern which she would later bring to her own family.
She did not have a silver-spoon upbringing. Her father worked for the Chicago Water Department while her mother stayed home to raise Michelle and her brother. On weekends, Michelle would do chores including cleaning the bathroom and mopping the floor; on Sundays, the whole family would go to church.
Her father had multiple sclerosis from a relatively young age, and this affected Michelle even in her youth. In one of her many speeches to students, she said that watching her father in pain, struggling to walk, “broke her heart”. She was determined to stay out of trouble, do well in school and obtain a college degree, as her father wished.
And do well she did. She and her brother were so advanced for their age that they skipped a grade in school, and by the time she was in sixth grade (around 12 years old), Michelle had been placed in a class for gifted students. She was on the honor roll for four years, took advanced placement classes, and graduated as the salutatorian (second highest marks) of her high school class. She was once asked how her parents would have reacted if she had gotten a B or C on her report card, to which she answered, “I don’t know, because they never had to deal with that.”
Exercising the same diligence and drive, she earned herself a place in the Ivy League. Michelle graduated cum laude (with honors) from Princeton University with a sociology degree in 1985, then earned a law degree from the formidable Harvard Law School in 1988. She went on to join Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm in Chicago. Not long after, the firm assigned her to mentor a new associate – also a Harvard Law School prodigy – called Barack Obama.
A Heart for Serving Others
With her qualifications and capabilities, Michelle could have had a lucrative, successful career wherever she chose. Employers were falling over themselves to hire her. But she had always had a heart for public service. Even while at Harvard, she gave hundreds of hours to the law school’s legal aid bureau – essentially a student-run law firm that helped poor people who could not afford lawyers.
In the midst of her corporate law career, the death of her father followed by her best friend a few months after caused Michelle to reassess her life and where she was headed in her career. One of her supervisors said that working at the law firm was not “meeting her sense of ambition to change the world”. Michelle wasn’t interested in being made a partner or earning a huge salary. She and the future president were both eager to make an impact through public service.
Switching gears, Michelle went to work as an assistant for the then mayor of Chicago. Following that, she served at a non-profit that groomed young people from diverse backgrounds for leadership and advocacy. During her nearly four years with the organization, Michelle set fundraising records that still stood for years after she left. She then worked as Associate Dean for the University of Chicago, then moved on to work with the university’s hospital systems.
With her track record for public service, it was no surprise that even in her first weeks in the White House, Michelle was already championing a cause – this time, through healthy living and healthy food. In 2009, the First Lady planted the White House Kitchen Garden – a major organic vegetable garden that has become a symbol for growing healthy food, teaching children about where their food comes from and the benefits of healthy eating. The garden wasn’t just a showpiece either; it supplied organic produce and honey (from bee hives installed on the South Lawn) for state dinners and other official functions.
Pushing for healthier American children
The vegetable garden soon evolved into an extensive, administration-wide initiative and was Michelle’s first initiative as First Lady. She aptly named it “Let’s Move!” and its primary objective was to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.
Nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese, and these numbers mean that one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. Many others will face obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma.
Supporting this initiative, President Obama created the Task Force on Childhood Obesity to create a national plan towards change. Even the Department of Defense has lauded Michelle’s initiative, stating that it (the department) had been facing a growing problem of obesity in its recruits.
The campaign has made significant progress toward achieving its goal by increasing access to healthy foods, encouraging physical activity and supporting healthier lifestyles. Salad bars were introduced to American public schools, along with healthier school meals and snacks. Nutrition labels were modernized. The MyPlate campaign was launched to simplify understanding of the different food groups and portion sizes. Partnerships with corporations resulted in thousands of chain restaurants creating healthier children’s menus and F&B companies cutting calories from their products. A partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee meant that sports and athletic programmes were provided to millions of children for free or at a low cost.
Michelle herself has given speeches and interviews and made TV appearances to promote healthy living, while practicing what she preaches at home. She tries to feed less fattening food to her daughters while working with White House chefs to develop healthier-but-still-delicious dishes. No slouch when in comes to keeping fit, tabloids and fashion magazines alike have commented on Michelle’s trim midriff, toned arms and early morning workouts.
During her tenure as First Lady, Michelle also launched three other major initiatives, two of which focused on education for young people. She has gone beyond the borders of her own country and launched “Let Girls Learn”, a multi-organisation campaign that aims to encourage educational opportunities for and improve the lives of girls worldwide. You might have seen one of her many powerful speeches calling for a change to the perception of the value of girls, or rousing college students to aim higher, work harder and make the most of their opportunities.
Woman of Substance
Despite her numerous accolades and achievements, Michelle would say that she is, first and foremost, mother to her two daughters Malia and Sasha. She tries to raise them to be as ‘normal’ as possible in the fishbowl environment of the White House and sets rules about a range of young teen issues, such as household chores, tattoos and social media.
When her daughters were younger, Michelle made it a point to be home almost every night to put the girls to bed, despite maintaining her own career and obligations.
She also manages her husband with equal deftness. Barack Obama has famously said that he quit smoking because “I’m scared of my wife”. According to Michelle, she negotiated an agreement in which her husband was to quit smoking in exchange for her support of his decision to run for president. Through the exhausting days of campaigning for the presidency to the stressful work of running the country, Michelle keeps her husband grounded and is his source of strength, counsel and support.
Her husband has described her as “smart, funny and thoroughly charming”, and said that if she ran against him for public office, she would easily beat him. She writes her own speeches, speaks without notes or pretense and is able to make jokes about herself. She has been described as poised, well-spoken, having an air of strength, and thanks in part to her five-foot-eleven height, she also has a commanding presence. She is a positive role model for women and mothers, while having the style and elegance of a fashion icon.
There are few people, both men and women, who can rival Michelle Obama for class, grace, intelligence and big-heartedness. As the Obamas’ term comes to an end, we wish the best for Michelle and the family as they transition into new roles. The next First Lady surely has big shoes to fill!
Bet you didn’t know…
• When she was dating Barack Obama, all her family members thought that the relationship would not last longer than a month. Her older brother once thought: “Nice guy. Too bad he won’t last.”
• Barack used to tell Michelle that marriage was a meaningless institution. One night over dinner, Michelle brought up the subject of marriage again, to which Barack went into his usual tirade against marriage. But when dessert arrived, there was a box on the plate, and inside the box was an engagement ring. Michelle said that “he managed to shut me up”.
• Michelle used to feel guilty about enjoying financial success as a big-firm lawyer. She remembers wondering, “Can I go to the family reunion in my Benz while my cousins are struggling to keep a roof over their heads?”
• In October 2016, amidst the heat of the presidential campaign, a poll revealed that Michelle was the most popular and well liked person on the American political stage.
• Michelle’s popularity is such that there have been suggestions that she run for president. Her husband, President Obama, has publicly (and hilariously) said, “There are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Michelle is not running for president. That I can tell you.”