Michelle Obama’s story is so, so much more than the wife of a president. She has experienced exactly the same dilemmas, successes, joys and frustrations as almost every working wife and mother. She is our rather fabulous Woman Of The Week.
Michelle Obama was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 17, 1964. Being married to the the 44th President of the United States certainly jet propelled her into everyone’s lives in recent years. But how did this girl, raised on the South Side of Chicago, start off on this path and what’s she doing now? We are making the former First Lady our Woman of the Week.
It has been well publicised that Michelle Obama was a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, but it was her close but competitive relationship with her brother that got her there. As a high-school junior, she visited him at Princeton University, which had recruited him to play basketball. “I’m smarter than he is,” she thought – determined to attend Princeton herself.
“I was willing to do whatever it took for me to go to college,” Mrs. Obama said. “Some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high! They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton. Nobody was going to take my hand and lead me to where I needed to go. Instead, it was going to be up to me to reach my goal. I would have to chart my own course.”
Speaking at Bell Multicultural High School in 2013, she talked about forming close relationships with her teachers, pursuing leadership opportunities, and studying to have the strongest academic record possible so that she could attend her dream school. She told the students “no matter what the President does, no matter what your teachers and principals do, or whatever is going on in your home or in your neighbourhood, the person with the biggest impact on your education is you.”
In another speech during a five-day trip to Jordan promoting her “Let Girls Learn” initiative, she referred to her own experience of gender discrimination as a child growing up in Chicago, recalling that even though she was “bright and curious, and had plenty of opinions of my own, people were often more interested in hearing what my brother had to say.”
In spite of all the naysayers, Michelle Obama succeeded. She spent her early legal career working at the law firm Sidley Austin, where she met Barack Obama. She worked as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and the Vice President for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Centre.
Barack and Michelle married in 1992 and had two daughters. He jokingly refers to Michelle as ‘wearing the trousers’. But even as a child Michelle had figured out how to wield power over her men, practicing on her sibling while appearing to defer to him. “We had this game where we set up two rooms and played ‘Office,’ ” says her brother, “She was the secretary, and I was the boss. But she did everything. It was her game, and I kind of had nothing to do.”
Her daughters are a major reason Mrs Obama has tried to avoid that dynamic with her husband. “When he comes home, he’s taking out the garbage and he’s doing the laundry and he’s making up the beds, because the girls need to see him doing that, and he knows I need him to do that,” she says.
Michelle Obama has a long history of speaking out about the ways in which men’s choices—particularly their professional ambitions—often leave their wives to pick up the slack, even when they have their own careers. “What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, (God is in there somewhere), but me is first,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy.”
She reconciled to putting her career on the back burner. She said in an interview in Vanity Fair in 2007 as Barack Obama campaigned for Presidency: “The way I look at it is, We’re running for president of the United States. Me, Barack, Sasha, Malia, my mom, my brother, his sisters—we’re all running,” she says. “Barack has never asked me to stop doing my job; ‘You have to do whatever makes you feel comfortable.’ But, for me, it was: How can I not be part of this? How can I go to work every day, when we’re trying to do something I believe in?”
However, it is the former President that admits that earlier in their 15-year marriage, she was often furious with him: “I have chosen a life with a ridiculous schedule, a life that requires me to be gone from Michelle and the girls for long stretches of time and that exposes Michelle to all sorts of stress,” he wrote in his best-seller The Audacity of Hope. By the time their second child was born, he reported, “my wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained. ‘You only think of yourself,’ she would tell me. ‘I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone.’ ”
Like every women, she struggled with the decisions she was making between working on the job she loved and taking time to care for the children: “Every minute after I had my first child I questioned my decisions” she told journalists during the campaign trail in 2008. One day she would love work. The next day she would feel like quitting.
She told of interviewing for a new job when Sasha was just 4 months old. She didn’t think she wanted the job, so she tried to sabotage the interview by bringing the baby along, nursing Sasha just before the interview and demanding a high salary. She got the job. But she struggled with the balance, she said. She still does, saying she worries about her children every day. “We’ve been told we can have it all. The truth of the matter is that you can’t. You can’t have it all at the same time.”
She also had to re-evaluate the gap between her own expectations and her husband’s far more flexible ideas about family life. “I came into our marriage with a more traditional notion of what a family is,” she says. “It was what I knew growing up—the mother at home, the father works, you have dinner around the table. I had a very stable, conventional upbringing, and that felt very safe to me. And then I married a man who came from a very different kind of upbringing. He didn’t grow up with a father; his mother traveled the world. So we both came to this marriage with very different notions about what children need, and a couple needs to be happy. So I had to give up some of my notions, and so did he. That’s part of being married; everyone makes compromises.”
But now that the Obama family have left centre stage, what’s next for Michelle? A chance to pick up her career or forge a new one? The couple is expected to sell their memoirs for a record sum of money, with Penguin Random House offering a deal of around $60 million. But Michelle Obama and Barack Obama won’t be penning their life stories together. Instead, each is expected to write their personal account about their days in the White House. We’re wondering if they’ll each be telling a very different story…