A Few Notes on Michelle Obama
It was a privilege to be a guest at the Michelle Obama charity fundraising dinner, hosted by The Hunter Foundation, on July 17th.
On reflection, I think I was once guilty of boxing Michelle Obama in as the ‘classy’ First Lady, as though her politeness and posture were her greatest accomplishments in the White House. Michelle is so much more than that. She is witty, clever, strategic, kind-hearted, loving, direct and proud. Oh, dare I use the cliche? She is a woman of the people.
For someone who has given countless interviews and public appearances, Michelle was overwhelmingly present as she sat on stage in the basement of the EICC. She gave us, an awestruck audience, not just her physical attendance but a real, emotional level of openness and authenticity.
Michelle spoke and we leaned in. I was quite involved in simply being and listening, so I didn’t take notes, but a few moments really impacted me, and I’d like to share those.
Despite criticism from a proportion of their country’s ‘patriots’, the Obamas never made a secret of having global philanthropic aims. They know that when we separate ourselves so distinctly by our geography, we gently unlock permissions to start separating ourselves by things like wealth, religion, and appearance here on our home turf. It is in this separation that we lose our sense of community, of justice, and of responsibility for each other. How sad it would be to live in a world where we only looked out for those we see ourselves in.
Michelle spoke of this when she was addressed the worldwide issue of women’s equality and safety.
‘We say, as long as my daughter is safe, then that’s what matters. Well, I want to live in a world where every daughter is safe. If human rights are diminished anywhere, they are diminished everywhere….If we turn away, then we are complicit.’
Our moderator for the evening, Dame Katherine Grainger, asked Michelle ‘What happened when you woke up and you were the First Lady? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do? Or did that come as you settled into the role?’
Michelle took the question gracefully but unapologetically explained to us that she is a Princeton and Harvard graduate with a successful career as a lawyer, that she was there during the gruelling campaigns and that she carefully learned from the actions of previous First Ladies. So, when she stepped into the role herself, there was (obviously) a plan in place.
It often feels to me that women are guided towards being cute, submissive and endlessly self deprecating. The media perpetuates this: Journalists spent eight years frivolously commenting on Michelle’s shoes and dresses while she implemented policies nationwide and created long-standing NGOs to continue a democratic vision after Barack’s presidency ended. However, I am so grateful to witness, more and more regularly, women speaking openly about their own achievements, strength and abilities. While we wait for the global media to reassess its priorities, it does us no harm to speak proudly for ourselves.
In recounting her past, Michelle attributed much of her strength to the loving family home she grew up in. A home, she said, where her brothers, father and grandfathers never made her feel any less as a woman, and challenged her to excel in everything she did. Their love and support was an integral part of her identity as she navigated her education and career.
How many women don’t grow up in homes like that? Even in the most developed and liberal countries, how much untapped and unappreciated potential exists? We are due systemic changes and updated policies, but as we work for those, let us never ever forget the overwhelming, indescribable power of love.
I’ll undoubtedly never forget the feeling of sharing a space with one of my personal inspirations. That being said, Michelle Obama is not a one-off; there are equally impressive women doing great work everywhere. The least we can do is support them, the most we can do is to find a way to become them.