Biography of Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States

Former First Lady Michelle Obama

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Michelle Obama (born January 17, 1964) was the first African-American first lady and the wife of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American to serve as president. She is also a lawyer, the former vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and a philanthropist.

Fast Facts: Michelle Obama

  • Known For: First Lady of the United States, wife to 44th President Barack Obama
  • Born: January 17, 1964 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Parents: Marian Shields and Fraser C. Robinson III
  • Education: Princeton University (BA in sociology), Harvard Law School (JD)
  • Published Works: Becoming
  • Spouse: Barack Obama (m. October 3, 1992)
  • Children: Malia (born in 1998) and Natasha (known as Sasha, born in 2001)

Early Life

Michelle Obama (nee Michelle LaVaughn Robinson) was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois, the second of two children of Chicagoans Marian Shields and Fraser C. Robinson III. She describes her parents as important early role models in her life, whom she proudly identifies as "working class." Her father, a city pump operator and Democratic precinct captain, worked and lived with multiple sclerosis; his limp and crutches did not affect his abilities as the family breadwinner. Michelle's mother stayed home with her children until they reached high school. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a brick bungalow on Chicago's south side. The living room—converted with a divider down the middle—served as Michelle's bedroom.

Michelle and her older brother Craig, now an Ivy League basketball coach at Brown University, grew up hearing the story of their maternal grandfather. A carpenter who was denied union membership due to race, Craig was shut out of the city's top construction jobs. Yet the children were taught they could succeed despite any prejudices they might encounter over race and color. Both children were bright and skipped second grade. Michelle entered a gifted program in sixth grade. From their parents, who had never attended college, Michelle and her brother learned that achievement and hard work were key.

Education

Michelle attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago's West Loop, graduating in 1981. Although she was discouraged from applying to Princeton by high school advisors who felt her scores weren't adequate, she was accepted and graduated from the college with honors and a bachelor's degree in sociology and a minor in African-American studies. She was one of very few black students attending Princeton at the time, and the experience made her acutely aware of the issues of race.

After graduation, she applied to Harvard Law School and once again faced bias as college counselors tried to talk her out of her decision. Despite their doubts, she matriculated and excelled, obtaining her J.D. in 1985. Professor David B. Wilkins remembers Michelle as forthright: "She always stated her position clearly and decisively."

Career in Corporate Law

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Michelle joined the law firm of Sidley Austin as an associate specializing in marketing and intellectual property. In 1988, a summer intern who was two years older than she by the name of Barack Obama came to work at the firm, and Michelle was assigned as his mentor. They married in 1992 and later had two daughters, Malia (born in 1998) and Natasha, known as Sasha (born in 2001).

In 1991, the death of her father from complications related to MS caused Michelle to re-evaluate her life; she subsequently decided to leave corporate law to work in the public sector.

Career in Public Sector

Michelle first served as assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daly; later she became assistant commissioner of planning and development.

In 1993 she founded Public Allies Chicago, which provided young adults with leadership training for public service careers. As executive director, she headed up a nonprofit named by President Bill Clinton as a model AmeriCorps program.

In 1996, she joined the University of Chicago as Associate Dean of Student Services and established its first community service program. In 2002, she was named the University of Chicago Hospitals' executive director of community and external affairs.

Balancing Career, Family, and Politics

Following her husband's election to the U.S. Senate in November 2004, Michelle was appointed Vice President of Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center in May 2005. Despite Barack's dual roles in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Michelle did not consider resigning from her position and moving to the nation's capital. Only after Barack announced his presidential campaign did she adjust her work schedule; in May 2007 she cut her hours by 80 percent to accommodate the needs of the family during his candidacy.

Although she resists the labels "feminist" and "liberal," Michelle Obama is widely recognized as outspoken and strong-willed. She has juggled career and family as a working mother, and her positions indicate progressive ideas on the roles of women and men in society.

First Lady

Michelle's husband Barack was elected U.S. president in November 2007. During her first term as first lady, Michelle spearheaded the "Let's Move!" program, a concerted effort intended to reduce childhood obesity. Although it has been difficult to gauge the success of the program overall, her efforts led to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutritional standards for all food sold in schools for the first time in more than 30 years.

During Barack Obama's second term, Michelle focused on the "Reach Higher Initiative," which aimed to help students identify future careers and enable them to complete coursework past high school—whether it's at a professional training program, a community college, or a four-year college or university. That initiative continues, with a focus on school counselor training, raising awareness about college access tools, and social media outreach and flagship events such as College Signing Day.

Post-White House

Since the Obamas left the White House in January 2016, Michelle worked on and published her memoir "Becoming," published in November 2018. She has also worked on the Global Girls Alliance, an education project intended to help provide tens of millions of adolescent girls worldwide who were not given a chance to finish high school; Global Girls is an outgrowth of Let Girls Learn, which she started in 2015 and left with the White House. She has actively supported the Chicago-based Obama Foundation charity, and been a spokesperson for When We All Vote, to increase voter registration.

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