Michelle Obama may go down as not only one of the most beloved, but also most accomplished first ladies. The Chicago-born lawyer was clearly going to be successful in her own right from an early age, attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She worked in a top Chicago law firm and then the non-profit Public Allies before taking on various positions at the University of Chicago. Perhaps because of the robust academic and professional obstacles she tackled, the most challenging moments Michelle Obama faced as first lady were weathered with her trademark poise and grace.
Unfortunately, those challenges were numerous. From the usual sexism leveled at female public figures to the racism that crept into public dialogue about the first family, Michelle Obama faced all kinds of prejudices and difficulties as she stepped into the role of first lady. And she didn't have to worry only about herself — Obama also began her time in the public eye with two young daughters to protect from the political pundits and critics, like Rush Limbaugh, who famously insulted presidential children (namely Chelsea Clinton) in the past.
If anyone could handle the pressure, though, Michelle could. "When they go low, we go high," she famously said during her Democratic National Convention speech endorsing Hillary Clinton. The tactic may not have worked for Clinton, who won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, but it did work beautifully for Obama, whose popularity as a public figure exceeds her husband's. Here are the biggest challenges our First Lady had to cope with during her time in the White House.
1Dealing With Racist Comments Made By Public Figures
During Michelle Obama's tenure as first lady — and even before her husband became president — she was subjected to ugly insults and racist tirades. She told students at Tuskegee University in 2015 that she was called a "crony of color" and "Obama's Baby Mama." Rush Limbaugh said that she "need[ed] to get over slavery."
A former Republican candidate for the New York governorship, Carl Paladino, told ArtVoice just this month that he'd like to see Michelle "return to being a male" and said she should be "let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe, where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla." Paladino, who confirmed making these racist comments, was the New York co-chair of President-elect Trump's campaign.
Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of the myriad racist attacks with which Obama had to cope during her time as first lady. Even in the face of such ugliness, though, Obama served as a role model for any American who deals with bigotry, handling the attacks with grace. How?
"I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God's plan for me," she told students during her Tuskegee speech. "I had to ignore all the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out."
2Dealing With Racist Statements Made By Other Americans
It wasn't just politicians and public figures who took racist potshots at the first lady. One of them was Dr. Michelle Herren, who was a faculty member and pediatric anesthesiologist the University of Colorado School of Medicine. On Facebook, Herren called Obama "monkey face" and criticized her "poor ebonic English," adding, "There! I feel better and am still not racist!" I do not imagine I am alone in finding that declaration unconvincing.
Obviously, claiming not to be racist hardly makes it so. In West Virginia, Clay County Development director Pamela Ramsey Taylor wrote a Facebook post calling Obama "an ape in heels." The town's mayor, Beverly Whaley, wrote that the post "made my day," though she later sent a statement to the Washington Post claiming, “My comment was not intended to be racist at all. I was referring to my day being made for change in the White House! I am truly sorry for any hard feeling this may have caused! Those who know me know that I’m not of any way racist!"
3Facing An Insane Conspiracy About Joan Rivers' Death
Alex Jones, whose website InfoWars popularized conspiracy theories about the Newtown massacre, among other things, propagated the idiotic conspiracy theory that Michelle Obama is transgender and murdered Joan Rivers to cover it up. As ridiculous as that theory is, InfoWars is in the top 600 websites in the United States by number of visitors, according to web traffic aggregator Alexa, so it is likely that many Americans were exposed to this theory.
4Raising Sasha And Malia To Be Grounded Women, Despite All The Media Scrutiny
Michelle Obama wasn't the only member of the White House family to face disgusting attacks. Indeed, there were revolting attacks leveled at the president's children (among them a conservative site's conspiracy theory that the girls were kidnapped from another family). But Michelle handled the challenge of raising two children in the national spotlight deftly. According to a 2013 interview with Barbara Walters, for example, Michelle said she's highly skeptical of social media, and encouraged her daughters to keep their online presences small: "I am still not a big believer in Facebook for young people ... we try to protect them from too much of the public voice."
She has long been open about her desire to give her daughters as "normal" a life as possible, which seems to include teaching them the value of hard work. It's difficult to know for sure from the outside, of course, but images of Sasha Obama working an unglamorous summer job seem to indicate exactly that.
5Being Attacked About Her Weight When She Tried Fighting Childhood Obesity
First ladies often choose an issue to promote during their time in the East Wing. One of Michelle Obama's choices — children's nutrition — should have been seen as innocuous. Who's opposed to kids eating healthy? But this was not the case for commenters who saw her health advocacy as an inroads to attack her weight, both in tasteless cartoons and explicit commentary by news hosts. Dr. Keith Ablow said on Fox News, "how well could she be eating? She needs to drop a few."
However, Obama did not let this stop her. She worked publicly to promote exercise and good eating choices and privately to convince corporations to cut fat and sugar from foods. The prevalence of obesity amongst two-to-five-year-old children has dropped "significantly" since 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6Being Slammed For Promoting Breastfeeding
According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding may help fight childhood obesity, as suggested by "a mounting body of evidence." The American Medical Association concurs, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obama promoted breastfeeding in 2010, because of this scientific consensus. This was not enough for some conservatives. Limbaugh said he "wasn't surprised" the first lady was encouraging people "to get on that teat." Limbaugh referenced (without actually citing) a "rich, rich body of scientific research that says that's a myth," and Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin were quick to add their criticisms of Obama, too.
When it came to some commentators, none of Michelle Obama's good deeds seemed to go unpunished.
7Having A Beloved Speech Allegedly Plagiarized By A Woman Whose Husband Fuels Conspiracy Theories About Yours
Donald Trump spent many years working to convince Americans that Barack Obama was not really born in the United States. The ludicrous "birther" movement catapulted Trump into the national political consciousness, creating the popularity he needed to run for president, and gave many Americans an excuse for their discomfort with the nation's first black president. Birtherism gave voice to disrespect and racism throughout the country, and so it was all the more insulting when Trump's wife, Melania, appeared to use quotes from one of Michelle's earlier speeches.
The Trump campaign ultimately acknowledged the misstep, blaming the similarity on a speechwriter who used a section of Michelle's speech that Melania reportedly read out loud during brainstorming sessions.
In spite of the anger this event could have justifiably inspired, Michelle Obama handled the controversy with her trademark grace. She was silent in the immediate aftermath of the revelation, allowing the news to speak for itself. When pressed by Stephen Colbert months later, she finally said, "yeah, that was tough," but declined to discuss the matter further.
8Despite Heavy Scrutiny, She Consistently Served as a Great Role Model for American Children
After all the ugliness that Michelle Obama had to put up with, it would be easy to understand if she were bitter. Yet, despite the many challenges she faced while first lady, Michelle Obama served her time in the White House with elegance, patience, and style. With her message of hard work and optimism, and she will be remembered not only as one of America's most popular first ladies but also as one of the greatest role models for American children.