Farewell Barack and Michelle Obama: Feminist icons

With Donald Trump set to officially become the 45th President of the United States on the 20 January, WeAreTheCity pays tribute to the Obamas and looks back at their achievements for women in the last eight years.

The former President of the United States, Barack Obama, along with his wife Michelle, openly admitted to being feminists and demonstrated this throughout their time in office.

Since 2008, Obama has spoken numerous times about gender equality and women’s rights. But in the last year, he has legitimised the idea that men can ― and should ― be feminists, and that he counts himself among them.

In an Essay written in Glamour magazine, Obama discussed the responsibility of men to join the fight against sexism, including how risky it is to gender stereotype, which he describes as “limiting our ability to simply be ourselves.”
“We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive and ambitious in the workplace — unless you’re a woman. Then you’re being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back,” he wrote.

In the 2014 State of the Union Address, Obama re-emphasised the importance of closing the gender gap, saying,

“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.

“A woman deserves equal pay for equal work… Let’s work together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”

To kick start this, he embraced a variety of initiatives that explicitly tackle female empowerment and gender equality. The first bill signed during his presidency was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January 2009 to lengthen the statute of limitations for discriminatory pay claims.

He supported Vice President Joe Biden (who earlier this week received the Presidential Medal of Freedom),  in his launch of It’s On Us, a program dedicated to fighting sexual violence on university campuses.

Obama then upped the minimum wage for federal contractors as nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women in the US.

Finally, he defended Planned Parenthood, made sure birth control was covered by insurance and rallied for women’s rights to make their own choices about health care and their bodies.


With Michelle Obama, supporting women and their education has been key to her position as First lady. She wrote an essay for The Atlantic in 2016 about ‘Let Girls Learn’, the White House’s Initiative to help educate the 62 million girls around the world who aren’t in school, and continues to rally for this cause.  She wrote:

“As a first lady, a mother, and a human being, I cannot walk away from these girls, and I plan to keep raising my voice on their behalf for the rest of my life,”

To celebrate ‘International Day of the Girl’, Michelle revealed her favourite feminist  “girl power” playlist”, which includes music from Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Hudson. In a 2009 speech at the State Department Women of Courage Awards, Obama illustrated the importance of females supporting one another, stating:

“The women we honor today teach us three very important lessons. One, that as women, we must stand up for ourselves. The second, as women, we must stand up for each other. And finally, as women, we must stand up for justice for all.”

In perhaps her most powerful moment as First Lady, Michelle spoke out about Donald Trump in the state of New Hampshire. It was a speech about women — about Hillary Clinton running for President, about the women around the country who were shaken by the prospect of Trump’s America after his sexual assault allegations.  “I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally and I’m sure that many of you do too,” Obama said. “The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our ambitions and our intellect, the belief you can do anything you want to a woman? It’s cruel, it’s frightening. And the truth is that it hurts. It hurts.”

In a single speech, Obama completely empowered women:

“You see, while our mothers and grandmothers were often powerless to change their circumstances, today, we as women have all the power we need to determine the outcome of this election. We have knowledge. We have a voice.”

Barack and Michelle have taught their daughters to acknowledge gender double standards and speak out about them. The Obamas’ stood for female equality and progress, and whilst there was more that could have been done, they still did more than any President has ever done for women. From appointing an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and ambassadors to the United Nations who brought women’s issues, including sexual violence, to the fore, to supporting women and girls in STEM.

Obama’s closing words in his last Presidential speech really reflect on how women everywhere can now move forward in 2017 and take control in business and otherwise:

“I am asking you to believe.  Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”

There will no longer be a feminist President and First Lady in the White House, but there will be feminist citizens, many, many more of them, thanks to the Obamas. The gravity of a man in the biggest position of power in the world supporting gender equality cannot be ignored, and won’t be forgotten.

Goodbye, Barack & Michelle. Thank you for being allies. We’ll miss you.

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