Michelle Obama resigns from Univ of Chicago

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photo by my hobo soul

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007; A01

CHICAGO — For the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is about to be unemployed.

She never aspired to be a stay-at-home wife or mother. For years she wrestled with the issues that many professional women with families face, chiefly whether to quit her job. Now, that is what Obama, 43, has decided to do. And though she will hardly be homebound, she admits to being conflicted.

“It is very odd,” she said of the prospect of interrupting her career, during one of her first one-on-one interviews since her husband, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), announced he is running for president.

“Every other month [since] I’ve had children I’ve struggled with the notion of ‘Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?’ ” she said. “I have gone back and forth every year about whether I should work.” When she finally winds down her duties as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals in the days ahead (she was promoted to the position soon after her husband joined the Senate), she said, it “will be the first time that I haven’t gotten up and gone to a job.”

“It’s a bit disconcerting,” she said. “But it’s not like I’ll be bored.”

Identity issues are something Obama has confronted head-on all of her life: as a black student at Princeton, where she wrote her senior thesis based on surveys of black alumni, then as an Ivy League-educated professional woman surrounded by white men, and now as the wife of a man who could become the first black president of the United States. She is no less thoughtful about labels she chooses to apply to herself — and those she rejects — than her husband, who has made his half-African, half-Kansan lineage and his part-Hawaiian upbringing a focal point of his narrative. On the campaign trail, she calls herself a mother, a citizen and a “professional,” a term that has not always been an asset for potential first ladies.

Yet 15 years after Hillary Rodham Clinton stumbled into the culture wars with comments about pursuing a career rather than staying home “baking cookies,” Michelle Obama appears unfazed by questions about her choices. “Yeah, you know, cooking isn’t one of my huge things,” she admitted, laughing when asked for a favorite recipe. “My view on this stuff is I’m just trying to be myself, trying to be as authentic as I can be. I can’t pretend to be somebody else.”

Rarely have political spouses played as dynamic a role as in the current presidential campaign, in which a former president (Bill Clinton), a Stage IV breast cancer patient (Elizabeth Edwards) and a person with multiple sclerosis (Ann Romney) have taken turns in the spotlight and could have a measurable effect as voters assess the candidates. The Obama campaign has introduced the family — Michelle and the couple’s two daughters, who are 5 and 8 — in relatively small doses, expecting to increase their visibility as the campaign continues. Michelle Obama has made 16 joint appearances with her husband since his formal announcement on Feb. 10 and another dozen by herself, including a trip to southern New Hampshire earlier this week.

In conversations with her friends, Obama has expressed some ambivalence about shedding her independent life, if never about her reason for doing so. “It’s a sacrifice for her to give that up,” said Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the Obamas’ and chair of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board, who said she and Michelle Obama discussed the decision as recently as last weekend, during a casual dinner at a neighbor’s house.

“On the other hand,” Jarrett said, laughing, “the opportunities she will have as first lady are great, too.”

Obama does not let herself go that far. She has no ready answer to the question of what she would do as first lady — whether she would, for example, decide to start working again. “Barack and I have lived very separate professional lives,” she said. “He’s done his thing, I do my thing. And my focus is on figuring out what’s the right thing for me to do given where I am in my life, where my kids are. And I won’t know what that looks like in ’08 — it changes,” she said.

Only half-joking, she adds: “I might be so tired I won’t want to talk to anybody after 2008.”

But Obama, energetic and striking at 5-foot-11, appears slow to tire. Exercise is alleged to be her favorite hobby. She has been conducting outdoor jump-rope clinics at her house for her daughter’s ballet class. Her workload is about 20 percent of what it was; she is letting go gradually. She still checks her BlackBerry for messages from the office and shows up for meetings, to the astonishment of her colleagues.

Long before entering the workforce, Michelle Obama, who grew up in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago, struggled to envision her future. Simultaneously pragmatic and intellectual, she followed her older brother to Princeton but remained conscious of being in the minority racially. In her 1985 undergraduate thesis, “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” she observed that she often felt out of place on the college campus.

“I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong,” she wrote. Yet she also acknowledged that after four years at Princeton, the environment “has instilled within me certain conservative values,” including aspiring toward “a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation,” goals shared by her white classmates. Her thesis project: surveying black Princeton alumni on how they felt.

She went on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1988. For the next three years, she worked as an associate at the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin, where she was assigned to mentor a summer associate named Barack Obama. She has recounted her initial reluctance to date the only other African American in the firm; on the campaign trail earlier this week, she recalled hearing his “strange name” before meeting him and thinking that “any black guy who spent his formative years on an island had to be a little nerdy, a little strange.”

“I wasn’t expecting much,” she told voters at a house party in Windham, N.H., on Monday.

Still, she took Obama to lunch. Soon thereafter she accepted his invitation to a community organizing meeting, where she saw Obama connect with neighborhood residents as he compared “the world as it is, as he referred to it, and the world as it should be,” she said.

“People found something real and authentic in what he was saying, and it resonated with me,” she said at the party. “And I knew then and there that Barack Obama was the real deal.”

And what, exactly, is Michelle Obama?

Her friends and associates describe her as a mother, wife and daughter first (her mother still lives nearby), but they quickly bring up her community activism. She quit the law firm to work for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) in 1991 and has worked in public service jobs since. She gave birth to their older daughter, Malia, in 1998. In the intervening years she moved into positions of ever-greater authority, and she was earning almost $275,000 a year before scaling back her duties this year. Work became increasingly important, but not for her own identity, according to her friend Jarrett. “I think part of why work has been so important to her, and why she considers herself a professional, is that she cares passionately about what she does,” Jarrett said.

So is she a feminist? “You know, I’m not that into labels,” Michelle Obama said in the interview. “So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it,” she said. “I wouldn’t identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or a progressive.”

Is she part of the kind of “two-for-one” deal the Clintons promised in 1992? Or more of a traditional spouse in the way Laura Bush has been?

“You know, I don’t know what will be, and I’m just trying to keep from going there yet,” she said.

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10 thoughts on “Michelle Obama resigns from Univ of Chicago

  1. rikyrah

    Well, indeedy, then.

    This is probably a serious step for her, and one she didn’t take lightly.

    It’s not like if he loses, she won’t be able to find employment again..

    LOL

    Something had to give, and I bet the kids had a lot to do with it. I bet they’ll be glued to her this summer when they get out of school.

  2. Once again, I wish this sista was running instead of her hubby. But then, again, Barack wouln’t be squat without this sista at his side.

    If she becomes the nation’s first African-American First Lady, she will define her role in the White House, and only Jacqueline Kennedy would be able to compare to her…and Jackie will compare very poorly to this powerful sista.

    Most sistas are like Michelle Obama – we just don’t have the celebrity status she has. But take heart, brothas, cause Obama didn’t get the last one…;-)

  3. Denise

    Her husband’s campaign should be the family priority. I think this is a good move.

    I’m sure she’ll have a more active advisory role so she won’t get bored.

    I commend her for not trying to have it all and killing herself in the process.

  4. rikyrah

    I concur with everything everyone else has said. I totally think this is a major step for her, personally.

    But, I also think this is a major step for the campaign.

    TPJ, I always crack up when I read you writing about Michelle, because I agree. And, whatever you think of Obama, I do think he’s smart enough to know that he just wouldn’t have made it this far without her.

    And, I agree…Brothas, there are a whole lot of ‘Michelles’ out there.

    Denise, you are right. Up to now, she’s been able to straddle it all, but this isn’t a Senate seat. This is for The White House. If she didn’t help him in every way possible, she’d always regret it.

    And, it’s true- between a campaign, and her kids, she’ll always be busy.

  5. Rick

    “But then, again, Barack wouln’t be squat without this sista at his side.”

    Women like her don’t men who aren’t doing something for themselves. They’d rather stay single than be forced to “settle”. My evidence? A whole lot of (single) ‘Michelles’ out there content in their careers and professional aspirations until they find the right man who complements her, and vice versa…and the thousands of conversations I’ve had on this topic. Conversations we all have with our friends when we meet with them and discuss “dating”.

    He’s got a great catch. She’s got a great catch too. They are both blessed. I admire them both! God bless em…

  6. The fact that Obama chose her as a wife tells me something about what kind of man he is. He could have selected a silly, no thinking, half-white armtrophy. But no, he selected a beautiful, smooth, smart, intelligent, independent sister.

    (And I ain’t hating on light skin sisters. I happen to be one of them. But with that being said, the truth is the truth.)

    And let’s not forget that sisters like Michelle don’t pick no chump to be her husband. Women as bright, intelligent, and strong as Michelle don’t just mess around with losers.

    So, while I think that Obama has his problems, I think that we need to understand that Obama is a great guy. Michelle Obama proves that. And since he has a wife like Michelle, whatever shortcomings he has, trust me she is helping him improve.

    “Point out a perfect man, and I’ll point you out as a person with an active imagination.”

    Angie

  7. Cliff

    I’ve heard this enough (explosion). The black woman would not be anything with out the black man either Rick. We compliment each other like spirituality, polarity, electricity. I know what I hear when I hear her, but she is not independent of knowledge and wisdom that may be coming from him as well. :)

  8. Rick

    Brother Cliff –

    For our community’s sake, I am hopeful the day will come when black women and black men come to realize that we do in fact need one another.

    Monday’s “open thread” contains a record 150 posts — a large number dedicated to the very serious problems facing our community, particularly black youth (e.g. health issues, education, incarceration, etc). These problems are so great that it will take a coordinated effort — all of us working together — to address them.

    Instead, we like the apostles get caught up arguing among ourselves about which of us is the greatest: from the celebration of black-male arrogance that played itself out in the 1980s (think Eddie Murphy “Delerious”) to the new black machisima being sold on the blocks now — sadly, those are JUST the gender rivalries — it’s all total bullshit.

    I believe if Jesus heard some of our conversations, he would grab a black kid and gently remind us: “for he (or she) that is least among you all, the same shall be great.”

    In other words Peter, James, John and company, maybe there’s room for you bragging Talented-Twelth folks to be a little bit more humble, a little bit more anxious to serve, a little bit more ready to love.

    Rick

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