Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Concerning the magnificent Mrs Obama, three stories dominated the press this week. What was she wearing (and who is this J. Crew?); the thing with the Queen, the thing with the Queen; and, possibly most crucially of all, would she win the sartorial shoot-out with Carla Bruni? The Guardian says: yes. To which I say: HA. (Although I was once introduced to Carla Bruni, a hundred years ago, before she was Carla Bruni, and she could not have been more charming and friendly. Considering I was wearing a dress that cost £18 from Miss Selfridge at the time, I thought that was a definite mark in her favour.)
But the point is, and there must always be a point, otherwise I risk arrest by the relevance police, none of these things mattered a straw compared to what the divine Mrs O did at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington. (Elizabeth Garrett who? you may say. I certainly did. It turns out she was born in Whitechapel, one of the twelve children of a pawnbroker, became Britain's first woman doctor, in the 1860s, and her life should be an inspiration to all our daughters.)
On the day that the tabloids chose to run headlines about Michelle Obama wearing a cardigan that committed the crime of carrying golfing overtones, she was inspiring a group of schoolgirls to tears of delight. Her visit was a surprise. She listened to them sing, she clapped and gave out high fives, she hugged as many of them as she could reach, to the flapping panic of her secret service detail. She was so touched by the show they put on for her that her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke to them. 'You are all jewels,' she told them. It was not just first lady guff or pointless sentiment. The American press has decided it likes Michelle Obama, but the narrative is that this is because she has done nothing political or controversial. Early on in the campaign, the story was that she was too scowly and grumpy, she was too educated, not patriotic enough. 'Why is she so angry?' the pundits shouted, angrily. They mistook determination and a refusal to simper for radical black rage. Now they like her because she is all Mom-in-chief and vegetable gardens. But what she told those girls, most of them from poor backrounds, was acutely political. It was just that the press was too caught up with the fashion story to notice.
She said that the health of a country depends upon the health of its women. She meant health in its widest sense. She told them that the world needs educated women, that good schooling is the silver bullet that will set the girls free, and enable them to be whatever they want to be. She said, most importantly of all, that it is all right to aspire to be intelligent. She said: 'I never cut class. I loved getting As, I liked being smart. I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world. You, too, with these values, can control your own destiny. You, too, can pave the way.'
It was a simple, eloquent, explicit feminist statement. It was absolutely lovely to watch. The girls clapped and cheered. They cried and jumped up and down. They were electrified by what she said. Some of them will forget, once the excitement dies away. But in years to come, when they are teased for being swots, or mocked for being too clever by half, some of them will remember that cool, smart, affectionate woman, and refuse to give up.
The longest clip of the speech is on the Telegraph website; link below. The Times and the BBC have shorter versions.