Unfortunately, when a woman marries someone successful, society most often tends to forget her achievements away from that relationship. In honor of Women’s History Month, HERSource is delving into the life and achievements of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, who later became Mrs. Obama and the first Black First Lady of the United States of America on the 20th January 2009.
She was born on the South Side of Chicago to working class parents, who raised her and older brother Craig in a small bungalow with a strong emphasis on education. Michelle and Craig were often mistaken for twins and were both highly intelligent children. They learned to read at home by the age of four and skipped second grade. Michelle’s family were part of “Black Chicago,” a community that came from the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to the East and Midwest looking for work. Despite the discrimination they faced, Michelle was raised to never use racism as an excuse for failure.
By the sixth grade, Michelle was in her school’s gifted students program taking classes in French and accelerated Biology. She later enrolled in Chicago’s first magnet high school for gifted children and became Student Government Treasurer and a member of the National Honor Society. In 1981 she graduated as class Salutatorian, her oration talents later came in handy for the many self-written speeches she provided during her husband’s political campaigns.
She followed her big brother’s footsteps and went to Princeton University to study Sociology with a minor in African-American studies. While at Princeton, she created a reading program for the children of the school’s manual laborers. Her dissertation, entitled ‘Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,’ explored the links between fellow Black alumni and their communities. After graduating from the Ivy League school cum laude in 1985, she studied law at Harvard University and battled with constant casual racist remarks, despite the school’s efforts to stop it. As a Harvard Law student, she participated in numerous demonstrations demanding for a more ethnically diverse student body and faculty. As a graduate of Harvard Law School, Michelle is one of three first ladies with a post-graduate degree.
As she was finishing up her first year as an Associate at the Chicago branch of Sidley Austin specializing in marketing and intellectual property law, 25-year-old Michelle was given a summer intern to advise in 1989. She was initially reluctant to date 27-year-old Barack Obama, worried about how it would look at work. The first couple had their first kiss outside a local mall, where a photo of Michelle and Barack kissing was posted on a plaque outside the mall to commemorate the historic moment in 2012. They dated for two years before he popped the question and their love story is soon to be played out in upcoming biopic Southside With You. They wed at Trinity United Church of Christ on October 3, 1992.
In 1991 Michelle left corporate law to pursue her passion in public service and to help her soon-to-be husband find networking opportunities. She worked her way up from being the Assistant to Mayor Richard Daley to being the Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development for the City of Chicago. By 1993 she founded Public Allies Chicago, an AmeriCorps national service program to help young people develop the skills needed for public service careers. In 1996 the fashion icon became the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and developed their first community service program. At the same time, she was canvassing for signatures and throwing fundraising events for Barack’s run for Illinois State Senator.
The 44th First Lady started working for the University of Chicago Medical Center in 2002, a sleeping four-month-old Sasha was clearly a good luck charm at her interview for Executive Director of Community Relations and External Affairs. As well as juggling her work with raising her two girls solo, while Barack was working in Springfield, Michelle also sat on the Chicago Council board on Global Affairs. By 2005 the supermom’s executive role at the University of Chicago Medical Center was promoted to Vice President and she took home a hefty annual salary of $212,000. She kept this role on until President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
As a First Lady, Michelle is known for her relatable speeches, her tactful honesty and her ability to break down barriers and connect with people from all walks of life. Her hard work over the years in her own career and in support of her husband’s career has made her a role model; as a woman, a mother, a wife and a person of color. Maintaining a sense of normalcy and giving a healthy childhood to her girls, Malia and Sasha, has always been her main priority. For this reason, she has unfortunately opted out of ever running for President. However, being the First Lady will certainly not be her only claim to fame once President Obama’s second term comes to an end. It is clear from her active engagement with the public over the years that Michelle’s contributions to society are not over yet. Watch this space.