When First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage in New Hampshire this month to rally for Hillary Clinton — and responded with authentic anger and horror to Donald Trump’s remarks about groping women — I was at first disappointed that Trump had once again managed to make the presidential campaign all about himself.
But as Obama’s speech went on, as she spoke about the violations that women and girls experience every day, I realized that Trump’s situation was working against him. Rape culture — which has already become a national conversation this year — has now worked its way into the presidential campaign. That’s exactly as it should be. And it’s Michelle Obama who brought it there, whose words made it clear just how important the treatment of women and girls should be in our society.
“I have to tell you that I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I’m sure that many of you do too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.
“It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
“It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no, but he didn’t listen.”
The eight years since Barack and Michelle Obama moved into the White House have been really tough, particularly with respect to race and gender relations. Although the Obamas were careful, during the early days of Barack’s presidency, not to make overt references to race, that has changed — particularly after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Barack Obama said, after George Zimmerman’s travesty of a trial, that Trayvon Martin “could have been me 35 years ago.”
While his comments helped make grief and anger over Martin’s murder more universal, Michelle Obama further highlighted America’s deep racial wounds when, at the Democratic National Convention this year, she said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Her remarks made plain just how far we’ve come as a nation — and just how far we have yet to go. They also sent conservatives into a tizzy:
— Allison Kilkenny (@allisonkilkenny) July 28, 2016
Let's be honest.
Michelle Obama says slaves built White House
to keep blacks angry and make whites feel guilty. https://t.co/Ap7ergpLFO
— Trump-tegrity (@fairNtrue) July 27, 2016
hey michelle obama what does slaves building the white house have to do with the dnc? https://t.co/wt3tzWc9QV
— grace grosenbach (@grosie_) July 28, 2016
Why must the First Lady continue to racebait? "Michelle Obama's Says White House 'Was Built by Slaves" https://t.co/cTEFkUQIzy
— Star Parker (@StarParker) July 27, 2016
Michelle Obama also put women’s rights issues at the forefront, rallying for the return of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, pushing for better education for girls around the world, speaking out against the oppression of women in the Middle East. In many ways, her mere existence as a powerful woman of color — her presence in the White House and on so many stages across the country and around the world — is a statement about women’s rights, especially the rights of black women.
Because she is so forthright and outspoken, she could easily be painted as that old tired stereotype of the “angry black woman.” Despite having every reason to be angry about the state of affairs for women and people of color in America, though, Michelle Obama has kept her cool and found ways to gracefully address these issues, working to bring people together rather than drive them apart.
Michelle Obama is often praised for her poise and elegance — typical First Lady stuff. Much is made of her style credentials (which, to be fair, are pretty phenomenal), of her work on child nutrition and fitness, of her beloved garden on the White House grounds. All of these are in keeping with the domestic box First Ladies are encouraged to contain themselves in.
But there’s much more to Michelle Obama than beauty, fashion and domesticity. Her chops are impressive. She’s at least as skilled an orator as her husband, arguably more so. She received a law degree from Harvard University and was an attorney at the law firm of Sidley Austin, where she mentored Barack as a summer associate before they fell in love. She left the world of law for public service, working as an assistant to the Chicago Mayor in the early 1990s before becoming executive director of the Chicago office of Public Allies. In 2002, she began working for the University of Chicago Hospitals, focusing on community affairs. She has spent the past eight years closely following and supporting her husband’s presidency, learning the ropes from the inside.
When I say I’m voting for Michelle Obama, I mean that I would back her in a second if she were on the ballot, and I’m voting for folks who could help put her there. In my political fantasy, Michelle Obama would spend the next eight years serving as the country’s Secretary of State, the latest in a long line of powerhouses including Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and, yes, Hillary Clinton. Once she’s gained some political muscle, Michelle Obama will be ready to inhabit the Oval Office. You know she’d be amazing at it.