Michelle Obama is one of the finest advocates of women’s rights we have. Here’ what she has to say on everything from aiming high to overcoming fear and building self-belief.
Michelle Obama is a woman who radiates self-knowledge and conviction. The former lawyer and outreach worker has always made a point of galvanising people, even before she became the first African-American First Lady of the United States.
A born campaigner and gifted orator, she’s one of those rare people who reaches outwards wherever she goes. Her meteoric rise up the ranks of the public service sector saw her help young people develop self-confidence and leadership skills; an aptitude that changed up a gear when she moved to the White House with husband Barack.
Most importantly, in an age where misogynists like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein dominate the public narrative, Obama is a feminist. And she holds a steadfast expectation that all those around her – from her husband to her two daughters and the public in general – will share her sense of courage and ambition for womankind. No wonder we all want her to be president.
Below, we’ve rounded up some of Obama’s most empowering pieces of advice for women to use in all chapters of life. Drink ‘em in as you prepare to take on the world…
“Focus on what you can control. Be a good person every day. Vote. Read. Treat one another kindly. Follow the law. Don’t tweet nasty stuff.”
(from a speech to the Bushnell Center of Performing Arts in Connecticut, Nov 2017)
Facing down fear
“Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”
(from Obama’s farewell speech as First Lady at the White House, Jan 2017)
“When I think of Maya Angelou [pictured] I think of the affirming power of her words. The first time I read Phenomenal Woman I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever, and sassy. They were powerful and sexual and boastful. And in that one singular poem, Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of black women but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty.”
(from a speech delivered at Maya Angelou’s memorial service in North Carolina, June 2014)
“I know how it feels to be overlooked, to be underestimated, to have someone only half listen to your ideas at a meeting – to see them turn to the man next to you, the man you supervise, and assume he’s in charge – or to experience those whistles and taunts as you walk down the street […]
“The ability to read, write, and analyze; the confidence to stand up and demand justice and equality; the qualifications and connections to get your foot in that door and take your seat at that table – all of that starts with education. And trust me, girls around the world, they understand this. They feel it in their bones, and they will do whatever it takes to get that education […] I know you feel that burning sensation, that sense of unfairness. Turn that into action. Turn that passion into something real. Those girls will be so grateful, because they are all of us. They are my daughters, and they are you.”
(from a speech to the Let Girls Learn event in Washington, D.C., March 2016)
Giving your all
“Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank and she moved quickly up the ranks. But like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by. But day after day, she kept on waking up at dawn to catch the bus, arriving at work before anyone else, giving her best without complaint or regret […]
“I know from experience that if I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters, and all our sons and daughters […] if we want to give them that sense of limitless possibility – that belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you’re willing to work for it – then we must work like never before.”
(from a speech to the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, Sept 2012)
The value of gender diversity
“The first thing that I recommend is you make sure that the problem solving table is diverse. There can’t be a room full of men who are going to come up with right answers for how to create a work environment that’s hospitable to women and it can’t be a room full of women. At any table that we are at, we should be working actively to mix it up so that we can have a real, broad range of perspectives on every issue.”
(in a speech to the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, Philadelphia, Sept 2017)
Women helping women
“We know that we need women in our lives who will tell us the truth –they will tell us, ‘You should absolutely go after that promotion’, or […] ‘How can I can help you with that, I know exactly who to call’. But these 62 million girls [who don’t have access to education], they don’t have anyone to call. They have so much talent and so much to say, but they have no outlet, no voice in their societies. It’s like they know the answers but no one will call on them.
“And every single one of us in this room knows how that feels, and we all know what a tragic waste of potential that is. So we need to be these girls’ network. We need to do for them what so many women did for us – women who fought so that we could walk through those classroom doors, and down those halls of power, and into those C-Suites.”
(in a speech to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., Oct 2015)
“Let’s be very clear. Strong men – men who are truly role models – don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful. People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together.”
(in a speech on the Hillary Clinton campaign trial, New Hampshire, Oct 2016)
The importance of self-belief
“I want you to know that you have everything you need to succeed at a place like this [Oxford University]. You just have to work hard. That’s it. You have to push yourselves. That’s the only thing. This does not come easy for anyone. Everyone here, regardless of their background, got here because they worked hard. And you stay here because you work hard.
“But more importantly, you have to believe in yourself. You have to mentally believe that you can be here. You have to paint that picture for yourself. And most of all, when you eventually get to a place like Oxford, I want every last one of you to reach back and to help others get here, too.”
(in a speech to North London secondary school students in Oxford - pictured above - May 2011)
Images: Rex Features, iStock