It’s been said that “behind every successful man there’s a strong woman.” Barack Obama’s been blessed with several strong women in his family. Here’s a fascinating article about the strong and wonderful in Barack Obama’s world. (I especially liked how he called his grandmother “Toot” and she called him “Bar”):
Michelle Obama waves after arriving for the speech by her husband, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at the Democratic convention in Denver Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
Madelyn Dunham, maternal grandmother
On Monday, the day before he was elected, Barack Obama stood before a crowd of swaying supporters in the North Carolina drizzle and said of the grandmother who helped to bring him up: “She’s gone home. She died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side … I’m not going to talk about it too long because it is hard for me.”
The death of Obama’s maternal grandmother – within a whisker of his historic victory – seems especially cruel when you consider the influence she had on him. Obama lived in Hawaii with the woman he called Toot (a shortening of “tutu”, the Hawaiian word for grandmother) and his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, throughout his adolescence. It was his grandmother, he once said, who “taught me about hard work. She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me.”
Born in 1922, Dunham was raised in Kansas, and worked as an aircraft inspector during the second world war, before studying at the University of California, Berkeley. When her husband’s job took the family to the 50th state, she went to work at the Bank of Hawaii and, at a time when women were in an even smaller minority in finance than today, she become one of the bank’s first female vice presidents. As one of her former colleagues recently recalled, “She was a top-notch executive to get appointed. It was a tough world.”
Her relationship with her grandson wasn’t entirely straightforward. In his landmark speech on race earlier this year, he noted that she was someone who “loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe”. Still, he said, he couldn’t disown her- she was part of an older world that held fast to views his election will hopefully help quash.
“What Toot believed kept her going were the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism of her ancestors,” Obama once wrote. “‘So long as you kids do well, Bar,’ she would say more than once, ‘that’s all that really matters.’”
Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, mother
Obama has said that his biggest mistake was not being at his mother’s bedside in 1995 when she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 53. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, he wrote: “Had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book – less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known.”
Born on an army base in 1942, Stanley Ann Dunham was named after her furniture salesman father, who had wanted a boy. Her father’s job took the family from Kansas to California to Texas, before ending up in Hawaii, where Stanley Ann enrolled at the state university. Here, aged 18, she met Barack Hussein Obama, a Kenyan student. Within a few months they were married and she was pregnant. The marriage didn’t last. Before her son was one, his father and namesake had left to study for a PhD at Harvard and the couple were soon divorced.
Obama’s mother was, by all accounts, intelligent, idealistic and strongly concerned with social justice. After a few years out of college, she returned to the University of Hawaii, where she met her second husband, Lolo Soetoro – she and Barack followed him home to Indonesia in the late 1960s. There she taught English and, anxious that her son wasn’t being challenged at school, began waking him at 4am each day to teach him from a US correspondence course. “This is no picnic for me either, buster,” she said, when he questioned the punishing schedule.
Her second marriage brought her a daughter, Maya, but ended in divorce in 1980. In the meantime, Soetoro had fallen in love with Javanese culture. She eventually gained a PhD in Indonesian anthropology and helped to build a microfinance programme in Indonesia that has been described as her greatest professional achievement, a network of small loans for the country’s impoverished entrepreneurs. Nancy Barry, who worked with Soetoro in the early 1990s, has said that “she was a very, very big thinker”.
In a Time magazine profile of Soetoro earlier this year, Obama said that he felt his mother had “a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn’t comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box.” In reaching far beyond the usual boundaries, she showed her son what might just be possible.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, half-sister
If anyone might be expected to dish some amusing dirt, it’s a presidential candidate’s kid sibling. But during the campaign, Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, nine years his junior, emerged as one of his most articulate supporters. The high-school history teacher with a PhD in education has described Obama as “the strong male force” in her life after her parent’s divorce. He helped her to tour prospective colleges, lectured her for reading gossip magazines and took her to her first voter-registration drive. An outspoken feminist herself, Soetoro-Ng believes her brother firmly supports women’s rights. “I’ve been calling him a feminist for the last year,” she says. “People laugh, but I think it’s true.”
Auma Obama, half-sister, and Sarah Obama, step-grandmother
Barack Obama has six surviving half-siblings on his father’s side, and he is particularly close to his older sister, Auma Obama, who grew up in Kenya. Barack wrote to Auma after their father’s death in 1982, and she has said that the letter astonished her: “Barack had the same handwriting as my dad and the same name. It was eerie.”
They corresponded for a while, before meeting up in Chicago, where Barack was working as a community activist. “There was a lot of apprehension,” says Auma. “I had a plan B in case it didn’t work out, but … we just didn’t stop talking when we met – it was absolutely as if we’d lived together all our lives.” In Dreams From My Father, Barack wrote that on meeting her he knew “that I loved [Auma] so naturally, so easily and fiercely that later, after she was gone, I would find myself mistrusting that love”.
In 1988, Barack Obama made his first trip to Africa to visit his father’s family, spending some weeks travelling around Kenya with Auma. It was on this journey that he met Sarah Obama – aka Mama Sarah – his step-grandmother, who had brought up his father from the age of nine. Now 86, Mama Sarah provides an ongoing link to his Kenyan roots, and has paid tribute to his caring, considerate nature. On hearing that he had won, she declared herself “so happy that I don’t know if I will die of happiness!”
Michelle Obama, wife
From the start of Obama’s campaign it was clear that his partner, Michelle, was never going to fit the old stereotype of an adoring political wife. Instead, in the early days on the trail, her speeches were peppered with references to his failure to clear up his socks or put away the butter – comments that were criticised by some, but which also made her seem refreshingly human. She underlined that theirs is a marriage of equals.
That is fitting for such an accomplished woman. Michelle Robinson grew up in a small bungalow on the south side of Chicago, with her brother, Craig, stay-at-home mother, Marian, and father, Fraser, who carried on supporting the family as a water pump operator after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Michelle followed her brother to Princeton and then went to Harvard Law School and on to a corporate law firm, Sidley and Austin. There she met Barack Obama, when he arrived for a summer job. She was initially his mentor and it apparently took some time for him to persuade her to go on their first date – a trip to see Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing.
Soon after seeing her future husband speak passionately about social issues at a community event, Michelle started to reassess what she wanted to do with her life. She left corporate law to start a career in public service, which led to her becoming a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals. She gave up the role last year when her campaign schedule became tougher. While right-wing commentators have tried to stir up doubts about her patriotism, she has been a huge asset on the trail, delivering 45-minute speeches, written herself and delivered without notes.
Keen to ensure that her daughters, Malia and Sasha, are as protected as possible, Michelle has said that she is now focused on being “Mom-in-chief”, though she will also, no doubt, be a crucial informal adviser to her husband. Competitive, clever, stylish and grounded, Michelle Obama’s story is just as potent as the president elect’s. “The truth is,” as she noted on the campaign trail, “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m a statistical oddity. Black girl, brought up on the south side of Chicago. Was I supposed to go to Princeton? No. They said maybe Harvard Law was too much for me to reach for. But I went, I did fine.” There’s no doubt about that.
Malia and Sasha Obama, daughters
The best thing about Malia and Sasha is that, at 10 and seven respectively, we know so little about them. The second best thing is that what we do know suggests that they are normal. They want a puppy. Malia says her Dad sometimes embarrasses her. She’s looking forward to decorating her new room. She thinks her Dad sometimes wears silly clothes. In short, they seem fantastic.