In praise of the First Lady: Michelle Obama’s special relationship with Mulberry girls


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Pity the history students at Mulberry School for Girls in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. While they were hunched over their desks in the school gym, taking their history GCSE, a ringing cheer filled the building. America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, was paying a visit.

She had chosen an all-girls’ comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most deprived boroughs, to promote the Let Girls Learn campaign, on behalf of the 62 million girls around the globe who are missing out on school. Her audience was made up principally of the daughters of Bangladeshi immigrants, for many of whom English is a second language, and a majority of whom are likely to have qualified for free school meals. “Girls like you inspire me,” she said.

Michelle Obama was in London for just 36 hours, accompanied by her mother, Marian Robinson, and her daughters, Sasha and Malia – but managed to pack in meetings with Prince Harry and the International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, and tea with David and Samantha Cameron in Downing Street.

In this country, the Prime Minister’s wife or husband has no official role, though they are dragged into the public eye nonetheless. In the US, the First Lady, or Flotus, is informally recognised as the White House hostess, and is provided with an office and staff. Some have been reluctant public figures, but Michelle is more Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt than Lady Bird Johnson – a fluent public speaker, at ease in front of the camera.

She also has a good back story, as she told the pupils of Mulberry School – a black woman from a working-class neighbourhood with parents who were ambitious for her, and who drilled into her the importance of learning. If the girls of Mulberry School inspired Ms Obama, she must surely have inspired them.