Updated: Mar 4, 2019
IN A LIFE filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.
In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (born January 17, 1964) is an American writer, lawyer, and university administrator who was First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. She is married to the 44th U.S. President, Barack Obama, and was the first African-American First Lady.
Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In her early legal career, she worked at the law firm Sidley Austin, where she met Barack Obama. She subsequently worked in non-profits and as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and the Vice President for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center. Michelle married Barack in 1992 and they have two daughters.
Obama campaigned for her husband's presidential bid throughout 2007 and 2008, delivering a keynote address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She returned to speak for him at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. During the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, she delivered a speech in support of the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady.
As First Lady, Obama served as a role model for women, and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity and healthy eating. She supported American designers and was considered a fashion icon.
Family and education
Early life and ancestry
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois, to Fraser Robinson III (1935–1991), a city water plant employee and Democratic precinct captain, and Marian Shields Robinson (b.July 30, 1937), a secretary at Spiegel's catalog store. Her mother was a full-time homemaker until Michelle entered high school.
The Robinson and Shields families 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 born into slavery in 1850 on Friendfield Plantation, near Georgetown, South Carolina. He became a freedman at age 15 after the war. Some of Obama's paternal family still reside in the Georgetown area. Her grandfather Fraser Robinson, Jr. built his own house in South Carolina. He and his wife LaVaughn (née Johnson) returned to the Low Country from Chicago after retirement.
Among her maternal ancestors was her great-great-great-grandmother (3xgreat-grandmother), Melvinia Shields, born into slavery in South Carolina but sold to Henry Walls Shields, who had a 200-acre farm in Clayton County, Georgia near Atlanta. Melvinia's 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 Melvinia's master. They may have had a continuing relationship, as she had two more mixed-race children and lived near Shields after emancipation, taking his surname. (Later she changed her surname.)
As was often the case, Melvinia did not talk to relatives about Dolphus' father. Dolphus Shields with his wife Alice moved to Birmingham, Alabama after the Civil War. They were great-great-grandparents of Michelle Robinson, whose grandparents had moved to Chicago. Other of their children's lines migrated to Cleveland, Ohio in the 20th century.
All four of Robinson's grandparents had multiracial ancestors, reflecting the complex history of the U.S. Her extended family has said that people did not talk about the era of slavery when they were growing up. Her distant ancestry includes Irish, English and Native American roots. Among her contemporary extended family is rabbi Capers Funnye; born in Georgetown, South Carolina, he is the son of her grandfather Robinson's sister and her husband, and is about 12 years older than Michelle. Funnye converted to Judaism after college. He is a paternal first cousin once-removed.
Robinson's childhood home was on the upper floor of 7436 South Euclid Avenue in Chicago's South Shore community area, which her parents rented from her great-aunt, who had the first floor. 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. She and her family enjoyed playing games such as Monopoly, reading, and frequently saw extended family on both sides. She played piano, learning from her great-aunt who was a piano teacher. The Robinsons attended services at nearby South Shore United Methodist Church. They used to vacation in a rustic cabin in White Cloud, Michigan. She and her 21-month older brother, Craig, skipped the second grade.
Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis, which had a profound emotional effect on her as she was growing up. She was determined to stay out of trouble and be a good student, which was what her father wanted for her. By sixth grade, Michelle joined a gifted class at Bryn Mawr Elementary School (later renamed Bouchet Academy). She 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. Michelle recalled being fearful of how others would perceive her, but disregarded any negativity around her and used it "to fuel me, to keep me going". She recalled facing gender discrimination growing up, saying, for example, that rather than asking her for her opinion on a given subject, people commonly tended to ask what her older brother thought. 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.
Education and early career
She was inspired to follow her brother to Princeton University, which she entered in 1981. She majored in sociology and minored in African-American studies, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985.
Robinson recalls that some of her teachers in high school tried to dissuade her from applying, and that she had been warned against "setting my sights too high". She believed that her brother's status as an alumnus — he graduated in 1983, before being hired as a basketball coach at Oregon State University and Brown University — may have helped her during the admission process, but she was resolved to demonstrate her own worth. She has stated that she was overwhelmed during her first year, attributing this to the fact that neither of her parents had graduated from college, and that she had never spent time on a college campus.
The mother of a white roommate reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to get her daughter reassigned because of Michelle's race. Robinson said that being at Princeton was the first time she became more aware of her ethnicity and, despite the willingness of her classmates and teachers to reach out to her, she still felt "like a visitor on campus". There were also issues of economic class. "I remember being shocked", she says, "by college students who drove BMWs. I didn't even know parents who drove BMWs."
While at Princeton, Robinson got involved with the Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center), an academic and cultural group that supported minority students. She ran their day care center, which also offered after school tutoring for older children. 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 sociology thesis, entitled Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.She researched her thesis by sending a questionnaire to African-American graduates, asking that they specify when and how comfortable they were with their race prior to their enrollment at Princeton and how they felt about it when they were a student and since then. Of the 400 alumni to whom she sent the survey, fewer than 90 responded. Her findings did not support her hope that the black alumni would still identify with the African-American community, even though they had attended an elite university and had the advantages that accrue to its graduates.
Robinson pursued professional study, earning her Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1988. By the time she applied for Harvard Law, biographer Bond wrote, her confidence had increased; "This time around, there was no doubt in her mind that she had earned her place". Her faculty mentor at Harvard Law was Charles Ogletree, who has said that she had answered the question that had plagued her throughout Princeton by the time she arrived at Harvard Law: whether she would remain the product of her parents or keep the identity she had acquired at Princeton; she had concluded she could be "both brilliant and black".
At Harvard, Robinson participated in demonstrations advocating the hiring of professors who were members of minority groups. She 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 Clinton and Laura Bush. She later said that her education gave her opportunities beyond what she had ever imagined.
Her father, Fraser C. Robinson III, died from complications from his illness in March 1991. She would later say that although he was the "hole in my heart" and "loss in my scar", the memory of her father has motivated her each day since. Her friend Suzanne Alele died from cancer around this time as well. These losses made her think of her contributions toward society and how well she was influencing the world from her law firm, in her first job after law school. She considered this a turning point.
Robinson met Barack Obama when they were among the few African Americans at their law firm, Sidley Austin LLP (she has sometimes said only two, although others have noted that there were others in different departments). 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.
Before meeting Obama, Michelle had told her mother she intended to focus solely on her career. The couple's first date was to Spike Lee's 1989 movie Do the Right Thing. Barack Obama has said that the two had an "opposites attract" scenario in their initial interest in each other, since Michelle had stability from her two-parent home while he was "adventurous". They married on October 3, 1992. After suffering a miscarriage, Michelle underwent in vitro fertilisation to conceive their daughters Malia Ann (born 1998) and Natasha (known as Sasha, born 2001).
The Obama family lived on Chicago's South Side, where Barack taught at the University of Chicago Law School. He was elected to the state senate in 1996, and to the US Senate in 2004. They chose to keep their residence in Chicago after Barack's election rather than to move to Washington, DC, as they felt it was better for their daughters. Throughout her husband's 2008 campaign for US President, Michelle Obama 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.
She once requested that her then-fiancé meet her prospective boss, Valerie Jarrett, when considering her first career move; Jarrett became 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." Despite their family obligations and careers, they continued to try 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 to increase enrollment. In Washington, DC, Malia and Sasha attended Sidwell Friends School, after also considering Georgetown Day School. In 2008 Michelle said in an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that they did not intend to have any more children. The Obamas received advice from past first ladies Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton about raising children in the White House. Marian Robinson, Michelle's mother, moved into the White House to assist with child care.