Friday, 3 April 2009

The single most important thing Michelle Obama did this week

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.


  1. Here, here. I saw the clip of this and thought it was lovely. Also wished desperately that we had anyone remotely similar over here to inspire our little people on a more regular basis. Currently unimaginable isn't it? PS: Also feeling slightly sheepish as your post is lovely and mine today ended up talking about dog poo. Oh dear!

  2. AJ - please do not fret, you have no idea how many dogshit stories I could share with the group, and almost certainly will.

    The Michelle Obama thing did make me rather teary. There was a great follow-up on today's Broadcasting House on Radio Four when the lovely Paddy O'Connell went to talk to some of the girls from the school. They could not think of a single British woman in public life who would make a comparable speech. We must have someone out there who could go and inspire the girls.

  3. Grim isn't it? The other extraordinary thing is that of anyone, Katie Price would probably give the most 'go for your dreams' speech of anyone. Not sure she'd put quite the emphasis on getting A's though. Hmm.

    NB: I bet David Cameron is making plans for Samantha as we speak. Double hmm.

  4. It made me feel pretty teary eyed, this one - so emotional, so honest, and downright inspiring. I have to say it, that couple seem to be doing things very right at the moment. It's wonderful to watch, both as a marketeer and human being.

    It was also lovely (she cackles) watching the security guards freak out and have no frame of reference for what to do in this situation!!

  5. Mystery - I know. I really did cry like a girl. I think it's because she was so moved herself, and she is so authentic, and what she did with those young women was something quite extraordinary. The flapping security men made me shriek - oh my god, oh my god, she is HUGGING, what do we DO?

  6. now THAT is my idea of feminism. education, education, education. bangladesh's success in increasing enrollment of females in secondary schools has now become a legend in development circles. it is the flagship programme of the World Bank, NGOs and most imptly, the Govt' of Bangladesh. of course, there is still a gap b/w female and male attendance, but that gap is being cinched, slowly. when michelle obama spoke of the merits of education to those girls in england it just made me think- what a universal view of feminism and empowerment. finally.


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