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2013 official portrait
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (born January 17, 1964) is an American lawyer and writer. She is married to the 44th and current President of the United States, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American First Lady of the United States. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, she is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and spent the early part of her legal career working at the law firm Sidley Austin, where she met Barack. Subsequently, she worked as part of the staff of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and for the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, Obama helped campaign for her husband’s presidential bid. She delivered a keynote address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She and her husband have two daughters together. She has become a fashion icon and role model for women, and an advocate for poverty awareness, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating.
Early life and ancestry
Obama was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 17, 1964, in DeYoung, Illinois, to Fraser Robinson III, a city water plant employee and Democratic precinct captain, and Marian (née Shields), a secretary at Spiegel’s catalog store. Her mother was a full-time homemaker until Michelle entered high school.
The Robinson and Shields families can trace their roots to pre-Civil War African Americans in the American South. On her father’s side she is descended from the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Low Country region. Her paternal great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, was a slave on Friendfield Plantation in South Carolina, the state where some of her paternal family still reside. Her grandfather Fraser Robinson, Jr. had built his own house in South Carolina, and he and his wife LaVaughn (née Johnson) returned to the Low Country after retirement.
Among Obama’s maternal ancestors was her great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, a slave on Henry Walls Shields’ 200-acre farm in Clayton County, Georgia; he and his children would have worked along with the slaves. Her first son, Dolphus T. Shields, was biracial and born into slavery about 1860. Based on DNA and other evidence, in 2012 researchers said his father was likely 20-year-old Charles Marion Shields, son of her master (Charles later married a white woman and had white children). Melvinia did not talk to relatives about Dolphus’ father. Dolphus Shields moved to Birmingham, Alabama after the Civil War, and some of his children migrated to Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago.
All four of Obama’s grandparents were multiracial, reflecting the complex history of the U.S., but her extended family said that people did not talk about the era of slavery when they were growing up. Her distant ancestry includes Irish and other European roots. In addition, a paternal first cousin once-removed is the African-American Jewish Rabbi Capers Funnye, son of her grandfather’s sister.
Obama grew up in a two-story bungalow on Euclid Avenue in Chicago’s South Shore community area. Her parents rented a small apartment on the house’s second floor from her great-aunt, who lived downstairs. She was raised in what she describes as a “conventional” home, with “the mother at home, the father works, you have dinner around the table.” Her elementary school was down the street. The family enjoyed playing games such as Monopoly and reading, and frequently saw extended family on both sides. They attended services at nearby South Shore Methodist Church. The Robinsons used to vacation in a rustic cabin in White Cloud, Michigan. She and her 21-month older brother, Craig, skipped the second grade. Her brother is a former basketball coach at Oregon State University and Brown University. By sixth grade, Michelle joined a gifted class at Bryn Mawr Elementary School (later renamed Bouchet Academy).
Obama recalled experiencing gender discrimination in her early years, mentioning that she was opinionated, but people commonly were more inclined to ask what her older brother thought of a given topic.
Education and early career
Obama attended Whitney Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet high school, established as a selective enrollment school, where she was a classmate of Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita. The round-trip commute from the Robinsons’ South Side home to the Near West Side, where the school was located, took three hours. She was on the honor roll for four years, took advanced placement classes, was a member of the National Honor Society, and served as student council treasurer. She graduated in 1981 as the salutatorian of her class.
Obama was inspired to follow her brother to Princeton University, where he graduated in 1983. At Princeton, she challenged the teaching methodology for French because she felt that it should be more conversational. As part of her requirements for graduation, she wrote a thesis titled Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community. “I remember being shocked,” she says, “by college students who drove BMWs. I didn’t even know parents who drove BMWs.” While at Princeton, she got involved with the Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center), an academic and cultural group that supported minority students, running their day care center, which also included after school tutoring. Obama (then known as Robinson) majored in sociology and minored in African American studies; she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985. She earned her Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1988. At Harvard she participated in demonstrations advocating the hiring of professors who were members of minorities and worked for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, assisting low-income tenants with housing cases. She is the third First Lady with a postgraduate degree, after her two immediate predecessors, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush. Obama would later say her education gave her opportunities beyond what she had ever imagined. In July 2008, Obama accepted the invitation to become an honorary member of the 100-year-old black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, which had no active undergraduate chapter at Princeton when she attended.
Official portrait by Pete Souza of the Obama family in the Oval Office, 11 December 2011
Michelle met Barack Obama when they were among the few African Americans at their law firm, Sidley Austin (she has sometimes said only two, although others have pointed out there were others in different departments), and she was assigned to mentor him while he was a summer associate. Their relationship started with a business lunch and then a community organization meeting where he first impressed her. The couple’s first date was to the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing
. They married in October 1992, and have two daughters, Malia Ann (born 1998) and Natasha (known as Sasha, born 2001). After his election to the U.S. Senate, the Obama family continued to live on Chicago’s South Side, choosing to remain there rather than moving to Washington, D.C. Throughout her husband’s 2008 campaign for US President, she made a “commitment to be away overnight only once a week – to campaign only two days a week and be home by the end of the second day” for their two daughters.
(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Obama once requested that her then-fiancé meet her prospective boss, Valerie Jarrett, when considering her first career move. Jarrett is now one of her husband’s closest advisors. The marital relationship has had its ebbs and flows; the combination of an evolving family life and beginning political career led to many arguments about balancing work and family. Barack Obama wrote in his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
, that “Tired and stressed, we had little time for conversation, much less romance.” However, despite their family obligations and careers, they continued to attempt to schedule date nights while they lived in Chicago.
The Obamas’ daughters attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a private school. As a member of the school’s board, Michelle fought to maintain diversity in the school when other board members connected with the University of Chicago tried to reserve more slots for children of the university faculty. This resulted in a plan to expand the school. Malia and Sasha now attend Sidwell Friends School in Washington, after also considering Georgetown Day School. Michelle stated in an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that they do not intend to have any more children. The Obamas have received advice from past first ladies Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton about raising children in the White House. Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother, has moved into the White House to assist with child care.
Public image and style
With the ascent of her husband as a prominent national politician, Obama has become a part of popular culture. In May 2006, Essence listed her among “25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women.” In July 2007, Vanity Fair listed her among “10 of the World’s Best Dressed People.” She was an honorary guest at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball as a “young’un” paying tribute to the ‘Legends,’ who helped pave the way for African American women. In September 2007, 02138 magazine listed her 58th of ‘The Harvard 100’; a list of the prior year’s most influential Harvard alumni. Her husband was ranked fourth. In July 2008, she made a repeat appearance on the Vanity Fair international best dressed list. She also appeared on the 2008 People list of best-dressed women and was praised by the magazine for her “classic and confident” look.
At the time of her husband’s election, some sources anticipated that as a high-profile African-American woman in a stable marriage Obama would be a positive role model who would influence the view the world has of African-Americans. Her fashion choices were part of the 2009 Fashion week, but Obama’s influence in the field did not have the impact on the paucity of African-American models who participate, that some thought it might.
Obama’s first term official portrait
Obama’s public support grew in her early months as First Lady, as she was accepted as a role model. On her first trip abroad in April 2009, she toured a cancer ward with Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Newsweek
described her first trip abroad as an exhibition of her so-called “star power” and MSN
described it as a display of sartorial elegance. Questions were raised by some in the American and British media regarding protocol when the Obamas met Queen Elizabeth II and Michelle reciprocated a touch on her back by the Queen during a reception, purportedly against traditional royal etiquette. Palace sources denied that any breach in etiquette had occurred.
Obama has been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy due to her sense of style, and also to Barbara Bush for her discipline and decorum. Obama’s style has been described as “fashion populist.” In 2010, she wore clothes, many high end, from more than 50 design companies with less expensive pieces from J.Crew and Target, and the same year a study found that her patronage was worth an average of $14 million to a company. She became a fashion trendsetter, in particular favoring sleeveless dresses, including her first-term official portrait in a dress by Michael Kors, and her ball gowns designed by Jason Wu for both inaugurals.
Obama appeared on the cover and in a photo spread in the March 2009 issue of Vogue. Every First Lady since Lou Hoover (except Bess Truman) has been in Vogue, but only Hillary Clinton had previously appeared on the cover. In August 2011, she appeared on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, the first person to do so in 48 years, and the first woman. During the 2013 Academy Awards, she became the first First Lady to announce the winner of an Oscar (Best Picture which went to Argo).
The media have been criticized for focusing more on the First Lady’s fashion sense than her serious contributions. She has stated that she would like to focus attention as First Lady on issues of concern to military and working families. In 2008 U.S. News & World Report blogger, PBS host and Scripps Howard columnist Bonnie Erbé argued that Obama’s own publicists seemed to be feeding the emphasis on style over substance. Erbé has stated on several occasions that Obama is miscasting herself by overemphasizing style.
- Colbert, David (2008). Michelle Obama, An American Story. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-547-24770-2.
- Lightfoot, Elizabeth (2008). Michelle Obama: First Lady of Hope. The Lyons Press. ISBN 1-59921-521-7.
- Mundy, Liza (2008). Michelle Obama, A Life. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-9943-6.