Michelle Obama: a voice of authenticity

Alya Bohr, Columnist

Illustration by Meg Cuca
Illustration by Meg Cuca

“When they go low, we go high.” As Michelle Obama took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention earlier this year, she began a vital counter-narrative during this troubling election: a narrative of hope, of morality, of faith in the nation. She urged the electorate to think of their children, to rise above pettiness and to see how far we’ve come. She did not mince her words, pander or speak with hyper-partisan political jargon. Instead, she spoke her truth. As a black woman in a role historically seen as adjunct to her husband, she occupies a particularly vulnerable place in our society—as we saw with the constant barrage of insults she faced during the 2008 election—but she has proven her strength, power and grace time and again, and has now emerged as a voice of authenticity and strength in a demoralizing time. Michelle Obama is the conscience of this election.

A recent WSJ/NBC poll found that she is the most popular figure in the current political arena, with a 59 percent approval rating (8 percent above her husband, who was rated second-highest). Granted, it helps that she isn’t a politician, but she has also perfected her ability to rise above the political small-mindedness and speak from her heart, defending the values of the nation, while acknowledging its many difficult truths. As she said at the DNC, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” She says what needs to be heard, her message both acknowledging a painful and complicated reality, and showing just how far the United States has come.

One of the most disheartening moments of the election was the release of the tapes of Trump’s degrading comments about women in his 2005 interview with Billy Bush. Michelle Obama, voice shaking with vulnerability and anger, stepped up and delivered the response the nation desperately needed.

“I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this,” she said. “It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.” She continued, “The measure of any society is how it treat its women and girls,” explaining that women often have to “pretend like this doesn’t really bother us, maybe because admitting how much it hurts us makes women look weak.” Her voice, ringing with authenticity, carried a message that was anything but weak: “Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

This is a big moment. She’s a woman, she’s black and she’s angry, an intersection which has traditionally been devalued by society. And yet, it is arguably her speeches that have brought the most comfort to a seething nation, her words that have touched millions, and her presence that has brought a much-needed ray of hope in a trying time. That is so important.

New York Times Magazine recently published a series of thank you letters to Michelle Obama from well-known public figures. In her letter, Gloria Steinem wrote of the Obamas, “I have never seen such balance and equal parenting, such love, respect, mutuality and pleasure in each other’s company. We will never have a democracy until we have democratic families and a society without the invented categories of both race and gender. Michelle Obama may have changed history in the most powerful way—by example.” Actress Rashida Jones wrote, “Michelle Obama will have her own legacy, separate from her husband’s. And it will be that she was the first first lady to show women that they don’t have to choose. That it’s okay to be everything.”

Michelle Obama went from being Barack’s mentor at their law firm to a dedicated first lady to a hero for millions around the nation. Her courage, her vulnerability and her authenticity have touched the country deeply. Her voice has been heard. She has made a difference.