Michelle, a voice for women in the White House

March 8, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Mar 8 – If one woman symbolizes International Women’s Day for Americans, and black American women in particular, it’s Michelle Obama, the successful career-woman and mother of two who six weeks ago became First Lady.

Obama, who turned 45 days before her husband Barack was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in January, is hugely popular in the United States.

Nearly half of Americans — 49 percent — have a favorable opinion of her, according to a recent poll by the New York Times/CBS.

The popularity ratings of the first African-American first lady put her ahead of all of her predecessors including Hillary Clinton, who began her eight-year stay in the White House with a 44-percent popularity score, Laura Bush with 30 percent and Nancy Reagan with 28 percent.

Her youthful, striking looks and dynamism, coupled with the fact that she understands what it means to be a working mother, juggling family life with a successful career, makes it easy for many women to relate to her.

But for black women in particular, Michelle Obama’s soaring popularity and high, positive visibility marks a huge step forward.

"If you think of the stereotypes of black women, they are either bossy and emasculating or sexually promiscuous, and Michelle Obama is neither of those," said Andra Gillespie, a sociology professor at Emory University in the southern state of Georgia.

"A woman who has an accessible beauty, is considered feminine and lady-like, has a husband and has kept him for more than 15 years and a husband who clearly loves her — people are not used to seeing black women in that position," she said.

Dubbed "my rock" by her proud husband, Michelle Obama is also seen as living proof that the American dream is accessible to anyone.

Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 17, 1964, she grew up in a working class Chicago neighborhood as the United States embarked on some of the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement.

The daughter of a worker at the local water treatment plant, who suffered from multiple sclerorsis, and a stay-at-home mother, Michelle Obama rose to attend two of the most prestigious US universities, Princeton as an undergraduate and then Harvard Law School.

After graduating, she worked in corporate law, as director of a community non-profit in some of Chicago’s less monied neighborhoods, and at the University of Chicago and its medical center, where she became vice president.

When Barack Obama threw himself into the race for first the Democratic Party nomination and then the presidency, Michelle was the highest earner in the power couple.

Since moving into the White House in January with her husband and daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, Michelle Obama has juggled the roles of mom-in-chief and first lady.

"She is an example of a young professional working woman who’s trying to balance her responsibilities," Gillespie said.

"One of her platforms is to highlight the work-family balance, to push for initiatives to make it easy for parents to be able to set their work schedule."

Standing around six feet tall (1.82 meters), Mrs Obama has also become a coveted model for the wares of American fashion designers, often choosing sleeveless creations — even in the dead of the Washington winter — to show off her cut, muscular arms.

Those arms have inspired chatter on blogs and in newspapers, with the Boston Herald newspaper wondering if the "deltoid has become the new D cup."


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