America’s First Ladies

America’s First Ladies, #44: Michelle Robinson Obama

Michelle Robinson Obama

Our forty-fourth First Lady, Michelle Obama, was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was Fraser Robinson, who worked as a secretary at the Spiegel catalog store. Her mother was Marian Shields and was a stay at home mother and homemaker until Michelle began high school. Michelle has a younger brother, and they both were academically skilled enough at young ages that each of them skipped second grade. She also has an older brother.

Michelle has a mixed ancestry, with all four of her grandparents having multiracial ancestors. She has said that her family did not talk much about the slavery era when she was growing up, but she has traced her lineage on both sides of her family to at least some direct ancestors who were enslaved. However, she also has Irish ancestry, mixed European ancestry, and even a cousin who is an African-American Jewish rabbi.


Michelle has stated that she had a conventional upbringing, where they had extended relatives nearby who they saw most days, and the entire family had dinner together every night and enjoyed playing Monopoly and reading together. Michelle played piano, which she learned from her great-aunt, who was a piano teacher. Her family attended church at the South Shore United Methodist Church in Chicago and used to vacation in White Cloud, Michigan.

Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis, and Michelle determined to be the kind of girl who stayed out of trouble and got good grades, which was what he wanted for her. She joined the gifted classes at her elementary school in sixth grade, and she attended Chicago’s first magnet high school, where she was a classmate of Jesse Jackson’s daughter, Santita. Michelle was on the honor roll every year during high school, she took advanced placement classes, was a member of the National Honor Society, and was the student council treasurer. She graduated as salutatorian of her class in 1981.

Her older brother went to Princeton University, and Michelle was inspired to follow him, though some of her teachers in high school told her she was aiming too high. She was admitted to Princeton despite their doubts, and Michelle believes her brother being an alumnus may have influenced her admission. Because of that belief, true or not, she was determined to prove she belonged there and set about making high academic achievements.

Michelle had never been on a college campus, and neither of her parents attended; the mother of one of her white roommates tried to get her daughter moved out of Michelle’s dorm because Michelle was black, but the university would not allow the move. Because she grew up poor and was surrounded by rich students at Princeton, she couldn’t relate to many of her fellow students. These things made Michelle feel out of place at Princeton, but she pushed through it.

Michelle majored in Sociology, with a minor in African-American studies, and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1985. She then went on to receive her Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School three years later. By the time she applied to Harvard, she believed she had earned her place in the upper echelons of academia. She was concerned with staying true to her roots, while also maintaining the academic identity Princeton gave her; her mentor at Harvard, Charles Ogletree, believed that by the time she applied to Harvard, Michelle believed that she could be both a high academic achiever and the daughter of poor black parents from Chicago.

In earning her Juris Doctor degree, Michelle became the third First Lady to have a postgraduate degree, after Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

After getting her law degree, Michelle went to work for the law firm, Sidley Austin LLP, where she met her future husband, Barack Obama. In fact, she was assigned to be his mentor when he worked there as a summer associate, and she was a full-time employee. They began their relationship with a business lunch and then attended a community organizing meeting together, which is where she has said he first impressed her.

Their first date was to see the Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing. Barack has said they were opposites who attracted like the old saying goes, because she had a stable, traditional two-parent upbringing, while his childhood was more adventurous. They married on October 3, 1992, and had two daughters, Malia and Natasha (called Sasha).

Barack began a political career and was eventually elected to the US Senate. However, instead of moving to Washington, DC, the Obama family continued to live in Chicago on the South Side and raised their daughters. When Barack went for US President in 2008, Michelle made herself a promise to only be away from home campaigning for him one night a week, which gave her two days a week to campaign, and most of her time to spend with her girls. To her, that was the most important thing.

When she became First Lady, Michelle visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens, sent her representatives to schools, and became an advocate for public service. One of her biggest initiatives as First Lady was to advocate for the families of military personnel, which lead to her guest starring as herself on an episode of the Nickelodeon teen show iCarly, where the main character’s father is stationed away in the military and the girl lives with her older brother.

Michelle also advocated for arts and art education, public service, and for women achieving a good work/life balance while she was First Lady. She was often complimented in the media for her fashion choices, but this was not a priority for her or how she wanted to be known. Michelle has continued to be active in public life since leaving the White House. She announced in February of 2018 that her personal memoir, called Becoming, will be released in November of 2018.