Michelle Obama and the Roots of Reinvention

How the First Lady learned to dream big.

By Geraldine Brooks
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

You can read Michelle Obama’s life two ways. In the first version, she is the quintessential modern woman success story: intelligent, articulate, and accomplished, with two Ivy League degrees, a pair of charming children and, by her early 40s, a slew of career achievements. But the trajectory of her life can be read quite differently, as a depressingly retrograde narrative of stifling gender roles and frustrating trade-offs. In significant ways, it is her husband’s career, his choices — choices she has not always applauded — that have shaped her life in the last decade. For Toni Irving, a Notre Dame university assistant professor who’s a friend and admirer, Michelle’s story epitomizes many women’s fate. "She’s just as well-prepared" as her husband, Irving says. "A comparable educational background, a community-based career, an active life, an agile mind — but she is also the primary caregiver, the one who manages so much in their lives." Now his grand ambitions have pushed her into a harsh and unforgiving limelight, where every sentence she utters is parsed for error and every public moment is a minefield. The very qualities that make her an icon of 21st-century womanhood — her strong opinions, her frankness in expressing them, the confidence born of bootstrap triumphs — make her a rich target for those who still believe that outspoken woman and first lady should never be synonymous.

Two weeks after the Montana primary we meet again, this time at a downtown Chicago hotel. I ask how it feels to be characterized and mischaracterized by all manner of strangers and to have new identities constantly thrust on her. (Not that all these identities are negative. Her Secret Service code name is Renaissance, a handle resonant of quattrocento elegance and hip Harlem nights. To the Crow Nation, she is Arrowhead Woman, a name given to her by a tribal elder, in honor of her flinty strength.)

Obama lets her long-fingered hands fall open in her lap in a kind of gentle shrug. "This might be a confusing journey if I were 30 or 20. But at 44, fortunately, I’m more comfortable with who I am and I’m more clear about who I am. Had I done this 10 years ago, I don’t think I could have done it with as much enjoyment. It would have been more painful. Now all the hard stuff really just rolls off your back." What has helped, she says, is feedback from people who actually saw and heard her on the campaign trail. She says their message has been "‘Don’t change.’ People, women particularly, say: ‘Be who you are.’ And my husband and my children don’t want me to change, and they’re the people I listen to the most."

And yet she has changed, not only in her swift mastery of campaigning but also in the newfound canniness of her public utterances. It’s hard to imagine the Obama of today making the statement she did back in February: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country."

The Transformation

Some women are watching Obama’s transformation with mixed feelings. It can be "heartbreaking’‘ to see her "navigate this new world of utter spousedom, when she’s so much more than that," says Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland and the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Schultz, author of And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man, left her newspaper job briefly to help her husband campaign in 2006. When Barack went on the road with them "and heard me making some crack backstage, he’d say, ‘You’ve got to meet my wife. You would love Michelle’; it was never when I was being warm and fuzzy," Schultz says. Last summer, Schultz and Senator Brown saw Michelle’s appearance on The View together and watched as the camera panned over Obama’s legs while she talked about not wearing pantyhose. "And my husband said, ‘I can’t believe she has to do this.’"

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