Her husband is soon leaving office – but Flotus is only just getting to work on a host of campaign initiatives
As the American presidential campaign heats up, outgoing president Barack Obama is contemplating life outside the White House.
But as he prepares to take a back seat in politics and mulls over what legacy he might leave, the work is just beginning for his wife Michelle.
The First Lady—or Flotus, as she is known in White House lingo—is embarking on ambitious plans to target the 62 million girls worldwide who are not in school.
It is a subject close to her heart as she says she knows only too well how circumstances of birth and a lack of opportunity can hinder access to education.
Speaking in Doha, Qatar, late last year to promote the Let Girls Learn initiative, she said: “I sometimes encountered teachers who assumed a girl like me wouldn’t be a good student. I was even told I would never be admitted to a prestigious university so I shouldn’t even bother to apply.
“Like so many girls across the globe, I got the message that I shouldn’t take up too much space in this world, that I should speak softly and rarely, that I should have modest ambitions for my future. That I should do what I was told and not ask too many questions.
“But I was lucky because I had parents who believed in me, who had big dreams for me. They said, ‘Just work harder to prove them wrong’.”
As her husband’s future hangs in the balance, Obama has stepped out from his shadow to carve her own mark for a future legacy—to encourage girls to pursue an education.
She is a pioneer of the Let Girls Learn campaign, backed by the US government and focusing on 13 countries, including Albania, Benin, Cambodia and Ethiopia, before expanding to other nations.
It was launched in March last year and took her on a week-long tour of the Middle East in November, where she met schoolgirls in Jordan and Qatar and spoke movingly of her own experiences as part of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) conference, hosted by the non-profit and part government-funded Qatar Foundation and chaired by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.
Some might see the First Lady as little more than a dutiful wife to the president and doting mother to their daughters Malia and Sasha.
But as Obama reminds us, she is a “lawyer, a city government employee, [and] a hospital executive”.
Whatever the role, Obama has done it with a great deal of aplomb and a healthy dose of good humour. When she fronted the Better Make Room campaign last month with Saturday Night Live’s Jay Pharaoh, rapping on camera to promote university education, she somehow pulled off a move which would have most teenage daughters cringing in despair at their parents.
Born Michelle Robinson in Illinois and brought up in Chicago, her own childhood, she says, was tough with little money but she fought the odds to go to Princeton University and then Harvard Law School.
“I went to school, I worked hard, got good grades and I got accepted to top universities,” she says.
“I say this as someone whose country has undergone a long and difficult struggle for women’s equality—a struggle that is still going on today.
“When my grandmother was born, women couldn’t vote. When my mother was a young wife, women couldn’t open credit cards in their own name. They needed their husband’s permission and when it came to education, their options were very limited.
“Back then, girls were discouraged from studying subjects like math and science and from pursuing professions like law and business and medicine.”
And while the last half-century has seen dramatic changes in the position of women in society, Obama and her cohorts have a mammoth task ahead of them—both at home in the US and abroad.
Their research showed while there has been greater gender parity at primary school age around the globe that changed drastically at secondary school level.
“When girls are young, they are often seen simply as children but when they hit adolescence and start to develop into women and are suddenly subject to all of their societies’ biases around gender, that is precisely when they start to fall behind in their education,” she says.
“Like so many girls across the globe, I got the message that I shouldn’t take up too much space in this world”
Tackling that gender bias is not simply about changing societal and cultural attitudes, she adds. It involves everything from providing bathroom facilities and hygiene products for girls to campaigning against forced child marriages and sexual assault.
Hefty investments are needed for more schools and teachers for girls, safer transport and training in technology to help them get jobs when they graduate. Even when those things are provided, society often fails them.
“When girls do attend secondary school, they often do so at great risk, as we saw in Pakistan, where Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen, in Nigeria, where more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school dormitory by Boko Haram terrorists and in countries across the globe where adolescent girls have been harassed, sexually assaulted, or doused with acid on their way to school,” she says.
“Even when girls do manage to finish secondary school—even university — in many countries, they graduate only to find that there’s no place for them in the workforce, nowhere for them to use the skills they have worked so hard to develop.”
Simply throwing money at the problem is not enough, she says. Instead, a change in attitudes and beliefs is needed.
“It is about whether parents think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons,” she says. “It is about whether our societies cling to outdated laws and traditions that oppress and exclude women or whether their view of women is as full citizens entitled to equal rights.
“If we truly want to get girls into our classrooms, then we need to have an honest conversation about how we view and treat women in our societies—and this conversation needs to happen in every country on this planet, including my own.”
Men play a crucial part in that as fathers encouraging their daughters or by pressing for equality in their workplaces.
“As fathers, as husbands and simply as human beings, this is your struggle too,” says Obama. “We need you to speak out against laws and beliefs that harm women.”
For the First Lady herself, her own successful career shows how much has changed.
“My education opened up opportunities I never could have dreamed of as a young black girl from a working class family in a big American city,” she says.
“My university degrees transported me to places I never could have imagined — to boardrooms and courtrooms and to the White House.
“This is such a long way from the tiny apartment where I was raised but that is the thing about education—it can carry our children such great distances and bring the most impossible dreams within their reach.”