Michelle Obama is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Growing up, Michelle Obama, a little Black girl from the South Side of Chicago, didn’t know how to unlock her personal power.
Sure, she had supportive parents, good grades and a straight head on her shoulders.
But what was missing was a sense of belonging.
Of course, for eight years, we came to know her as the polished first lady to America’s first Black president, Barack Obama. Since leaving the White House, she’s discovered a megaphone she couldn’t always use under the watchful eye of political critics, and she’s still living by the motto she first made famous, “When they go low, we go high.”
She’s written another book, “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times,” that speaks to such empowerment. And Obama has started recording “The Light Podcast.” It allows her to share stories of family and lessons about inner confidence.
Working through the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, Obama has joined forces with philanthropist Melinda French Gates and human rights attorney Amal Clooney to help girls around the world move closer to global gender equality. Their goals include ending child marriage and getting more girls into classrooms.
Michelle Obama chosen as one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year
“Gender equality – and the plight of young women around the world – has always been an important issue area for me,” Obama said in writing, responding to questions provided to her as a Women of the Year honoree. “There are over 100 million bright, hardworking, and capable girls out there who aren’t in school – who aren’t being given a fair shot or opportunity to succeed. That’s not just a tragedy for these girls, it’s a tragedy for all of us. We know that when girls go to school we are all better off: poverty goes down, economies grow, and babies are born healthier.”
French Gates said millions of girls around the world look at Obama and see the woman they want to be. And the reason Obama is such a powerful advocate for them is because she looks back at those girls and sees herself.
“Michelle is a true global icon who has lived and worked in one of the most important buildings on the planet, but you get the sense that when she looks in the mirror, she still sees the little girl with big dreams that she used to be,” said French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Ventures. “That comes through in the conviction she brings to her work on behalf of young people and rising leaders.
“We haven’t seen too many people on the world stage who manage to exude the same combination of competence and warmth, and it’s an incredibly effective combination,” French Gates said of Obama. “Whether she’s speaking to heads of state or high school students, you see her treat everyone with the same attention and care. She doesn’t get distracted by who happens to be powerful. She is laser-focused on who has potential and what she can do to help them achieve it.”
Obama has also become an ambassador for When We All Vote, a nonpartisan organization that helps people register to vote and understand the power of their voice as a tool for change. She believes the way to advance equality is through the lens of racial, social and economic justice. In her view, that starts at the polls.
“Mostly, I’m just trying to share my story,” Obama wrote. “And by doing so, I hope I’ve helped some people see the value in their own stories – and share theirs as well. It’s that give-and-take with folks all around the country and around the world that’s meant the most to me.”
Obama’s written answers have been edited for length and clarity.
More than anyone else, it’s my parents: Marian and Fraser Robinson. They gave me the courage and determination I needed to always be myself and live with confidence. This process started early, back when I was a little kid, sitting at the kitchen table with my brother. My parents always wanted to hear our thoughts and opinions about the world around us. They always made us feel like our voices mattered. We weren’t told to be “seen, not heard,” like a lot of kids of our generation. They wanted to hear us – they liked it, even. And that level of engagement and support really laid a foundation that helped my brother and I thrive.
You know, I don’t really worry about that kind of stuff. There’s not much I can control about what others think about me. Throughout my time as first lady and even now, I think I’ve just tried to make the most of my platform by focusing on things that are authentic and real to me. At the White House, that meant helping kids and families live healthier lives, talking with military families that inspired me, mentoring local students in D.C., and talking to kids about college.
Well, I’ve got to start with the birth of my two beautiful daughters – because they are without a doubt the thing I’m most proud of in the world. Those girls mean everything to me, and I am so lucky to be the mother to strong, thoughtful, and resilient young women. I’m also just really grateful that our family made it out of the White House in one piece. It’s tough to raise children – or feel normal – in such unusual circumstances, and we made it through. I’m proud of that. I would say losing my dad was my lowest moment. I was just devastated. I lost him about a year before Barack and I got married, and knowing that he wouldn’t be there to walk me down the aisle and or meet his grandchildren was so painful. I think anyone who has lost a loved one knows that the pain never really goes away.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
This may not be the most surprising answer for you, but Barack and I really did use “going high” as a mantra when the critics were loudest. For us, going high was a line in the sand, a decision point – a place to step back and decide who we wanted to be. It’s not always easy to go high, of course. But unlike making the choice to take the low road, going high will never, ever diminish who you are. It always helps us shine our brightest and lead lives with a little more dignity.
It’s not always easy to go high, of course. But unlike making the choice to take the low road, going high will never, ever diminish who you are. It always helps us shine our brightest and lead lives with a little more dignity.
Of course, I look up to all the greats: Nelson Mandela, Dr. [Martin Luther] King, Maya Angelou, and so many others. But I’m probably someone who looks up the most to those I’m closest with, like my big brother and my mom. I just think the world of them – who they are and how they live their lives. And I really, truly know them, flaws and all. I think there’s a real power in understanding someone’s whole self – the full truth of their example – especially if it’s an imperfect one.
Derek White, Getty Images for ABA
Well, going high is a big part of it. But I also think a few other things have gotten me through rough patches over the years, and I talk about a lot of them in my book. Barack, of course, is one of them. I am so grateful to have a partner who listens to me when I’m down, reasons with me, and does everything he can to lift me up. I know how rare that is, and I just love him for it.
I also have an incredible group of friends, who I refer to as my Kitchen Table. They are my tried and true friends, and they are just there for me. Period. When I’m struggling, I know I can just pick up the phone and call them, and they’ll be my shoulder to cry on. They’ll be there for me to help me make it through.
Women making an impact are chosen as USA TODAY’s Women of the Year
“Becoming” really did change my life – publishing it lifted a lot off my shoulders. It was an exhale. Writing “The Light We Carry” was cathartic in a different way. Like a lot of folks, I found myself in a low spot during the pandemic. And part of what helped me get through it was the process of writing this book. It was my way of answering those questions that so many of us were asking: How do we live with uncertainty? How do we overcome? So for me, this book is about understanding that none of us are alone in this world; that we all have a light inside us that can shine bright even through all the uncertainty the world throws at us. We just have to keep kindling it.
I think I would say something like: “Hey Miche – you are good enough. You can do this.” I remember feeling so much anxiety as a younger person. Did I belong? Did I measure up? I remember even having a counselor once who told me that I wasn’t good enough for Princeton. And that introduced a whole new set of doubts for me about how I saw myself in the world. It took me time, but I eventually found my place – and gained more confidence in my voice.