When you ask Michelle Obama what she would most like her teenage daughters to know as they grow up in America, the answer is simple: how to speak up. “I always tell my girls: you have a voice — and you should use it. And I would give that same advice to all girls: speak up in class when you have an idea. Speak up in your community when you see an injustice that needs to be corrected. Tell the hard truths that other people are too afraid to tell.”
Speaking up for girls, both at home and across the world, is something that the first lady practises as well as preaches. Since March, Obama has travelled to countries including Britain, Japan, Cambodia and Qatar to promote Let Girls Learn, an initiative to help some of the more than 30 million adolescent girls who lack access to education. Embracing a network of 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers, it will seek community-led solutions to lower the barriers that prevent girls from getting secondary schooling.
“As I’ve travelled the globe, I have met so many girls who are working so hard to get their education,” says Obama. “These girls are so bright and so hungry to learn — they’re walking for miles to school each day, they’re studying for hours each night. And when they get that education, it doesn’t just change their lives — it changes the lives of their families and their countries.”
Let Girls Learn will initially focus on 13 countries — Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Thailand, Togo and Uganda — before expanding to other nations. It also involves partnerships with countries such as the UK and Japan, which will contribute money to help the effort. In promoting the programme, Flotus and Potus — White House code for the first lady and the president of the US — have stressed the benefits that come from education, everything from cutting disease and mortality rates to expanding the economy to tackling terrorism. “Research shows that girls who go to school earn higher salaries and raise healthier families, and when more girls go to school, that can boost an entire country’s GDP,” Obama says.
This power of schooling is something that Obama knows about. Growing up in a tiny apartment in racially segregated Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, she has first-hand knowledge of how instrumental education can be. “My family didn’t have much money, and neither of my parents had a college degree, but they were determined to see me get the best education possible. And really, that education was everything for me — it was the starting point for every opportunity I’ve had in my life,” Obama tells the FT in her extended written responses to emailed questions. “But so many girls never get that chance — right now, 62 million girls worldwide are out of school.”
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in 1964, the year that civil rights hero Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize. In her early years, she and her brother Craig shared a partitioned room in a one-bedroom apartment. Her father was a water plant pump operator and her mother looked after the children. It was a simple life that included playing board games on Saturday nights.
Her parents focused on ensuring that Obama and her brother got a good education to help them overcome any racial or class barriers. She attended an integrated secondary school for high achievers that opened in 1975, then went on to Princeton University and Harvard Law School. “I did occasionally encounter people outside my family who thought that a girl like me from a working-class background would never get accepted to a prestigious university, and I shouldn’t even bother applying,” says Obama. “But my parents always told me: don’t listen to the doubters, just work harder to prove them wrong. And don’t let anyone else’s expectations define you or limit you — set your own expectations for yourself and do everything you possibly can to live up to them.”
This is not to say that everything was immediately easy when she reached university. “When I first got to college, I felt totally out of place. I had no idea how to choose my classes — or even how to find them on campus — and I didn’t even have the right size sheets for my bed. And I was hesitant about speaking in class because I wasn’t sure if I would always have the right answer. But after a while, I realised that I had just as much to say as my classmates who were always raising their hands — so I started raising my hand too.”
One of the first groups that Obama met after launching Let Girls Learn was at Mulberry, a secondary school in London where more than 85 per cent of students — predominantly from poor Bangladeshi immigrant families — go on to university. “Some of you might be wondering, why would the first lady of the United States come here to Tower Hamlets?” Obama told the girls during her visit. “The answer is simple: I’m here because of you. I’m here because girls like you inspire me and impress me every single day . . . I may come from a country that’s an ocean away . . . but in so many ways, your story is my story.”
Tina Tchen, Obama’s chief of staff, says the first lady has long focused on promoting female education, particularly as her travels have underscored the many hurdles — from economic factors such as high fees to cultural factors such as forced marriages and a lack of support from men in the community — that girls face around the world. Tchen says one catalyst for Let Girls Learn was a meeting the Obamas had with Malala, the Pakistani schoolgirl who has campaigned for female education since being shot by the Taliban in an area where girls received threats for attending school. “That was inspirational and I think led the president and the first lady to get reinspired about these girls,” says Tchen.
Tchen says Obama was also moved, just weeks after launching the programme, when she was welcomed in Cambodia by girls who sang a song in Khmer about the new initiative. But the first lady hopes the stories of the girls she has met will also inspire teenagers back home. “I always tell young people here in the US that if girls around the world can walk for hours each day to get to and from school and can study at rickety desks in bare concrete classrooms, then surely you can make it to school on time yourself and pay attention in class and do your homework every night.”
Since entering politics with her husband, Obama has taken her fair share of criticism for speaking out — whether over her campaign to urge companies to provide healthier food for schoolchildren or comments that critics have labelled as unpatriotic. During the 2008 campaign, she declared that “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country”, in remarks that referred to her excitement that the country was moving in the direction of electing its first black president.
In the White House, she has adopted a more visible and refreshingly less self-conscious demeanour than most of her predecessors. Ebs Burnough, a former top aide, says that as with most first ladies, the hard-charging lawyer who loves to play tennis, do yoga and work out initially struggled to adapt to the “fishbowl” existence of presidential life. But he says Obama quickly settled in and knew exactly what she wanted, pursuing her goals with the drive of an athlete and expecting performance according to the metrics of a lawyer. While she is “demanding”, Burnough says she has a good sense of humour that included poking fun at him over his love life and teasing staff who have the misfortune to like Barry Manilow.
She also remains determined to get her message out there to all parties. As the first lady travels around the world, one of her hopes is that the men in each of these communities will pay equal attention. “Growing up, I had plenty of men in my family — my father, my brother, my uncles and grandfathers — who pushed me, supported me and told me that I was smart and that my voice mattered. So men can start right in their own families by encouraging their daughters to fulfil their potential.”
Obama says men also need to act as “change-makers” on issues such as forced child marriage, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and other practices that contribute to preventing girls from getting an education. They should raise their voices about the need for equal pay and family leave, which she stresses are not “women’s issues”.
She has personally felt the impact of men not sharing the burden of child-rearing. When then Senator Obama first moved to Washington, he rented an apartment near Capitol Hill, and travelled back to see his family in Chicago at the weekend. “Barack would be gone for long stretches of time while he was serving in the Senate or out on the campaign trail, and that was hard — on him and on us,” she says. “The girls missed having their dad around for all those daily childhood moments, and it was often a struggle for me to fill in all the gaps.”
These days, the president has the great advantage of living above the shop. “Even though he works around the clock, we can all have dinner together at night and that makes a huge difference, even if he usually has to head right back to work. Those dinners are really when our family checks in with each other — when we fill each other in about our days and Barack and I get a sense of what’s happening in our daughters’ lives.”
Female role models have played a critical part for the first lady as well. “I have so many — it would take days for me to list them all! But more than anyone else, I would say that my mom is really my first and best role model,” she says of Marian Robinson, who lives with the Obamas at the White House. “She is such a powerful, loving, grounding presence in our family. She somehow always knows exactly the right thing to say, whether it’s a small piece of smart, practical advice or some profound wisdom that she’s come by over the years . . . We absolutely could not have done this without her.”
A time of change is approaching for the first family. In 2016, Malia, the eldest daughter, will leave for college. “We’re still in denial about how, next year, there’s going to be an empty seat at the table,” says Obama. Around the same time, the US election will also deliver her husband’s replacement in the White House. Speculation about where the Obamas will head next and what they might do is already rampant but the first lady is adamant that she plans to continue to focus “for the rest of my life” on what she says is not just an economic problem but a “moral issue”.
“Each of these girls has the spark of something extraordinary in them. And I see myself in these girls — I see my daughters in these girls — and I just cannot walk away from them. So for me, this is personal.”
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
Photographs: AP; Getty