«Ha cambiato per sempre il ruolo della First Lady», ha scritto Gloria Steinem l’altro giorno in un intervento sul New York Times Magazine. «Dopo un decennio vissuto sotto il microscopio dell’opinione pubblica, Michelle Obama è riuscita a fare ciò che a nessuna altra First Lady era riuscito: vivere sotto i riflettori senza sacrificare privacy ed autenticità. Potrebbe aver cambiato la storia nel modo più potente: facendo da esempio».
Gloria Steinem, New York Times Magazine, 17 ottobre 2016
Michelle Obama came into my life in stages. I knew that, like her husband, she was a Harvard-educated lawyer, but that unlike him, she had grown up on the South Side of Chicago, with parents who had not gone to college. When Barack Obama was a summer associate at her Chicago law firm, they met because she was his mentor. After his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, I noticed that she chose not to go to Washington. Instead, he commuted to their home and two daughters in Chicago where Michelle had a big job as head of community affairs for a hospital.
But she really entered my imagination once she became first lady, a tall, strong, elegant and seriously smart woman who happened to live in the White House. She managed to convey dignity and humor at the same time, to be a mother of two daughters and insist on regular family dinners, and to take on health issues and a national food industry addicted to unhealthy profits. She did this despite an undertow of bias in this country that subtly questioned everything she did. Was she too strong, physically and intellectually, to be a proper first lady?
After a decade under a public microscope, she has managed what no other first lady — and few people in any public position — have succeeded in doing: She has lived a public life without sacrificing her privacy and authenticity. She made her husband both more human and effective as a president by being his interpreter and defender, but also someone we knew was capable of being his critic. Eventually, she spoke up about the pain of the racist assumptions directed at her, but she waited until her husband could no longer be politically punished for her honesty. And she has always been the best kind of mother, which means insisting that fathers be equal parents. All of this she has done with honesty, humor and, most important, kindness.
Recently, over the course of the Trump-Clinton presidential campaign, Michelle has become one of the most effective public speakers of our time. That’s serious. To be less serious, she has always been a woman who knows the difference between fashion (what outside forces tell you to wear) and style (the way you express a unique self). At one lunch in the White House for women who had been spokespeople and supporters in President Obama’s second campaign, she invited local public school children to sing and perform. Those students, mostly African-American kids, were spirited, talented and at ease in a White House that belongs to them as much as to anyone in this country, yet they wouldn’t have been there without Michelle.
What will she choose to do next? That’s up to her. She could do anything, from becoming a U.S. senator from Illinois to campaigning for the safety and education of girls globally. She could also choose to lead a private life. Whatever she decides, I trust her judgment.
Though I’m old enough to remember Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House — and all the couples and families since — 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.
Gloria Steinem, a feminist activist and writer, has been touring America, campaigning for Hillary Clinton and promoting the paperback edition of her travelogue “My Life on the Road.”