Michelle Obama first became a household name in her position as First Lady of the USA, after her husband Barack was elected President in the 2008 Presidential Election. Now, she is a global icon in her own right, with a podcast, best-selling book, and multi-year deal with Netflix all under her belt, as well as having become a fashion icon to many.
From the early days of the Obama presidential campaign, Michelle started to attract attention. She was absolutely no-nonsense in her campaigning, and this positioned her well to become a strong female role model to girls and women across the globe in years to come. These days she is perhaps the most recognised African American woman on earth, and her influence stretches into all aspects of life.
Michelle’s book, Becoming, sold around 725,000 copies in the US and Canada on its first day, and just 15 days after its publication, it had become the bestselling book in the US for 2018. According to The New York Times, by November 2020, the book had sold a staggering 14 million copies worldwide, highlighting the influence that Michelle has on a global scale. The audio version of her book even went so far as to win a Grammy at the Grammys 2020 Awards for Best Spoken Word Album. Similarly, 2020 saw her launch her podcast, The Michelle Obama Podcast on Spotify, and after just three weeks of being released, it was named Spotify’s most-listened-to podcast of summer 2020. Michelle and Barack’s first joint effort for their multi-year Netflix deal, American Factory, a documentary depicting the 2015 launch of a Chinese-owned automotive glass factory in Ohio and the clash of cultures and business interests it brought with it, was met with critical acclaim, and it went on to earn the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Oscars. In 2020, Time magazine retrospectively named Michelle as their Woman of the Year for 2008, an impressive accolade to add to her many other achievements.
It would seem then, that Michelle is no stranger to success. However, her beginnings were perhaps a bit more humble than her present self may lead you to believe. She was raised in a small home on Chicago’s South Side, sharing a room with her brother, Craig, which was divided from the rest of the house with a sheet. Her family were very close-knit, and she has said in the past that they tended to all eat meals together and would often play games and visit their extended family. She has also described her home as a conventional family home in which the father works, the mother stays home, and you have dinner round the table.
Michelle’s father suffered from multiple sclerosis, something which affected her profoundly while she was growing up. In the past, when urging people to vote, she has spoken of how even at the height of his illness, she remembers how her father would always make sure he could go and cast his ballot, stressing how this memory of him always inspires her to go and vote herself, no matter the circumstances. Her father tragically passed away in 1991, but Michelle says it was from him and her mother that she learnt unconditional love and the idea that the only thing a child needs in life is for their parents to completely adore them.
Education was always an incredibly important part of Michelle’s life, and it was something which her parents always placed a strong emphasis on. Both she and her brother could read by age four, and both of them skipped the second grade. In the sixth grade, Michelle had begun taking classes which were part of her school’s gifted programme, during which time she learned to speak French and completed accelerated courses in biology. She then went on to attend Whitney M. Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet high school for gifted children, which was established as a selective enrolment school. Michelle has recalled that despite being considered a gifted child, she faced gender discrimination in certain areas of education, citing as an example that often, people would ask for her brother’s opinion on a given subject rather than her own. In spite of this, Michelle continued to prove her intelligence and was on the honour roll for four years, eventually graduating from the school as class salutatorian.
The Obama Family
When applying to college, Michelle recalls that some of her high school teachers had attempted to dissuade her from applying, warning her against setting her sights too high. Ignoring their advice, in 1981, Michelle entered Princeton University, where she majored in sociology and minored in African American studies, graduating cum laude with a BA in 1985. Michelle says that the first time she became truly aware of her ethnicity was at Princeton, when the mother of a white roommate reportedly attempted to have her daughter moved because of Michelle’s race. At Princeton, Michelle ran the daycare centre for the Third World Center, an academic group which supported minority students.
Following on from her time at Princeton, Michelle enrolled at Harvard Law School, and was awarded her JD in 1988. During her time at Harvard, she participated in demonstrations which called for the enrolment and hiring of more minority students and professors. She also worked for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where she assisted low-income tenants with housing cases. It is these experiences with education which shaped the woman she is today, and she herself has said that education gave her opportunities that she had never before imagined would be open to her.
Her first job after graduating was at the Chicago Branch of law firm Sidley Austin LLP. It was during her time at this firm that Michelle met Barack, after she was assigned to him as a mentor while he was completing a summer intern placement at the firm. It is said that initially, Michelle thought it was improper to date him due to their work relationship, but eventually she relented, and after two years together, he proposed, and they were married in 1992. After suffering a miscarriage, the Obamas turned to IVF and in 1998 they had their first daughter, Malia Ann, followed by the birth of Natasha, known as Sasha, in 2001. The couple have often said that their number one priority is their daughters, and they have tried to give them as normal a life as possible.
Ever ambitious, in 1991, Michelle left the corporate law world and pursued a career in public service. She began this career as an assistant to Mayor Richard Daley, and later became the assistant commissioner of planning and development for the City of Chicago. In 1993, she became the executive director for the Chicago office of Public Allies, a non-profit which helps young adults develop skills for a career in the public sector, again showing her unwavering commitment to helping educate children to give them the best possible futures. The years that followed saw her take up positions as the University of Chicago’s associate dean of student services – a role in which she developed the school’s first community service programme – then a role as executive director of community relations and external affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals, and finally, in 2005, a role as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, a role which she maintained part-time until shortly before becoming First Lady. She also held a position as board member for the prestigious Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In 2007, Michelle scaled back on her own career in order to dedicate all of her energy to her family and her husband’s campaign. During the campaign she caught people’s eye through her no-nonsense campaigning, as well as her fashion sense. From this moment on, she began to be seen as a fashion icon. She has been featured on the cover of countless magazines, including Vogue, and on numerous best-dressed lists, including those published by Vanity Fair and People. Over the course of Barack’s presidency, Michelle wore some of the most stylish outfits ever seen on a First Lady, and her consistently good style choices catapulted her to the forefront of the fashion world’s consciousness.
It seems Michelle can never be busy enough! In addition to her own successful career, she is also a true philanthropist, and is passionate about tackling many social issues including poverty and educational access issues. During their first year in the White House, she and Barack volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the Washington, D.C. area. She also made public appearances at schools during which she stressed the importance of education, a value which had been instilled in her from a very early age. In May 2014, she joined the #BringBackOurGirls campaign which sought to bring back schoolgirls who had been kidnapped in Nigeria.
Other positive movements for change which have been led by Michelle include her Let’s Move! Initiative which hoped to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity. Several Republicans criticised her for this initiative, with Chris Christie accusing her of using the government to impose her views on eating on the country. Ted Cruz said he would end Obama’s health policies and return French fries to school cafeterias if his wife was First Lady, in a clear attempt to make a mockery of Michelle’s initiatives. Despite this criticism, she stuck to her policies, and even planted The White House Kitchen Garden, an organic vegetable garden, the first White House kitchen garden since Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady. She also released a book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, in an effort to get people to understand where their food came from, and to showcase the work she was doing to tackle childhood obesity.
Her time as First Lady was not always easy, and there were moments that she faced criticism. Michelle Cottle accused her of being a “feminist nightmare” for not using her position to advocate for women’s rights in a Politico article in 2013. However, this article was met with equally strong criticism across the political world, with Melissa Harris-Perry, a prominent critic of Cottle’s, putting it very simply in a concise “Are you serious?” Her supporters pointed out that Michelle was one of the only people in the administration who was prepared to tackle obesity, one of the leading US public health crises. It seems that though she has faced criticism, her supporters greatly outweigh her critics. Additionally, her strength of character continually sees her succeeding in the face of adversity, a quality which has made her such a strong role model to so many.
Over the years, Michelle has been the subject of much speculation regarding whether she herself would run for President. However, Michelle has often said she has no passion for politics, despite having been relatively political active during her time in the White House, with Barack repeatedly saying that she has no interest in running for office. In fact, in January 2016, when asked if Michelle would be running for President, Barack said: "There are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Michelle is not running for president. That I can tell you."
All in all, given Michelle’s considerable achievements over the years, it is not hard at all to see how she became a global icon. From lawyer to education champion to global style icon, Michelle seems to have done it all. She is incredibly impressive in her own right, away from the fame that her husband’s Presidency has brought upon her and her family. Coming from a humble, conventional home taught Michelle the value of love and of family, and the loss of her father instilled in her a motivation to make change that she still carries with her every day. If there’s one thing that can be said about Michelle Obama, it’s that she is a true role model.