U.S. Politics

Behind Michelle Obama’s heartfelt speech: 8 years of sexist and racist attacks

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“I have to tell you that I listened to all this. And I feel it so personally,” first lady Michelle Obama said Thursday in remarks about the sexual assault and misconduct allegations against Donald Trump at a campaign appearance for Hillary Clinton in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“It has shaken me to my core,” she said.

That’s no wonder. She’s been the victim of sexist attacks — often intertwined with racist themes — since her husband’s 2008 run for the White House.

Obama made clear in her speech that what makes Trump’s statements particularly outrageous and uniquely unacceptable is that he bragged about behavior that could constitute sexual assault. She also lamented the sexist attitudes behind the treatment of women that his comments and conduct represent, and the day-to-day ways women are degraded, saying:

It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business. Some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares just a little too long. You feel uncomfortable in your own skin.

She continued:

I have to tell you that I listened to all this. And I feel it so personally. And I’m sure that many of you do, too. Particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.

Obama’s speech was emotional, and that makes sense. She knows firsthand that Trump’s infamous remarks, and the underlying views of women they reflect, are all too common.

When she talks about “vulgar words” and “shameful comments” that equate women’s value with their physical appearances, she could just as easily be referring to things that have been said about her, often with a dose of racism mixed in to increase the insults. Just a few examples:

  • In 2010, discussing the first lady’s promotion of breastfeeding, radio host Rush Limbaugh said he wasn’t surprised to see her “encouraging people to get on that teat.”
  • In 2012, a California comedian joked that “Playboy is offering Ann Romney $250,000 to pose in the magazine, and the White House is upset about it because National Geographic only offered Michelle Obama $50 to pose for them.”
  • In 2013, a Richmond, Virginia, school board member’s email captioned a photo of traditionally dressed African women with bare breasts “Michelle Obama’s high school reunion.”
  • In July 2015, Patrick Rushing, the mayor of Airway Heights, Washington, referred to her as “monkey man” and “gorilla face” in a Facebook post.
  • Just in July, a loan officer lost her job after calling the first lady an “ugly black bitch” on Twitter.

Obama didn’t speak out in response to any of these attacks, but it’s not hard to read her speech as partly catharsis about the pain she’s endured and what it says about how women — and black women in particular — are demeaned in this country.

After the speech, Politico reported that the White House warned Trump not to attack Obama. “I can’t think of a bolder way for Donald Trump to lose even more standing than he already has than by engaging the first lady of the United States,” principal deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters during a gaggle aboard Air Force One.

The political calculation is accurate, but for the first lady, it wouldn’t be anything she hadn’t heard before.

2 thoughts on “Behind Michelle Obama’s heartfelt speech: 8 years of sexist and racist attacks

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