illustrated portrait of African American first lady Michelle Obama


by Michelle Obama

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Becoming Themes

The main themes in Michelle Obama’s Becoming are dedication to personal growth and aspirations and persistence despite setbacks.

  • Dedication to personal growth and aspirations: Michelle traces her process of “becoming” herself. Despite Barack’s intense political schedule and ambitions, she stayed true to her values and aimed to keep their family life as normal as possible.
  • Persistence despite setbacks: Though her guidance counselor discouraged her from applying to Princeton University, Michelle attended both Princeton and Harvard Law School. She and Barack also endured harsh criticism both during the campaign and during their time in the White House.


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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Dedication to Personal Growth and Aspirations

The book’s title, Becoming, reflects the great value Michelle Obama places on personal development and staying true to one’s ambitions—on striving to “become” something more. As a child, Michelle was a dedicated student, always earning straight As and telling adults she hoped to become a pediatrician. She writes that though she was “ambitious,” she “didn’t know exactly what [she] was shooting for.” She feels now that asking a child what career they want is pointless:

As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.

As Michelle’s ambitions began to take form, she was accepted into and attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In Chicago, she joined the firm Sidley & Austin (where she mentored her future husband, Barack Obama), only to leave when she realized that she was not passionate about her work there. She took a new position at city hall, the first of many jobs that would allow her to exercise her passion for improving others’ lives and supporting her community. When she became a mother, Michelle found ways to dedicate herself to both her career and her young daughters’ childhoods without compromising on either. 

Throughout her husband’s political career, Michelle refused to let her identity or passions fade. Though her daughters, Malia and Sasha, had a childhood that was anything but ordinary due to their father’s political campaigns and positions, Michelle strove to provide normalcy, establishing concrete schedules for them that Barack would adjust to instead of the other way around. Michelle’s dedication to her personal identity was criticized during Barack’s presidential campaign, when she was condemned for appearing strong and independent. 

As First Lady of the United States—a position, the preface explains, that is without a job description—Michelle allowed her passions for education, childhood nutrition, and community to shape her activism, engaging and creating initiatives that would impact children in the United States and across the world. 

Persistence Despite Setbacks 

Michelle Obama was discouraged by her guidance counselor from applying to Ivy League schools. Despite her guidance counselor’s skepticism, she was accepted to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School. She had to fight for her opportunities and was, throughout her life, often “the only woman, the only African American, in all sorts of rooms.”

Though Barack and Michelle Obama both faced harsh comments for their race during Barack’s presidential campaign, Michelle faced additional criticism: while she worried about her identity fading behind that of her husband, sexist critics condemned her for being the independent female figure that she was. She has been insulted for her race, gender, body, and determination; but in all of this, Michelle writes, she has “tried to laugh this stuff off.” The role of First Lady comes with a heavy and inevitable burden, and Michelle’s race and independence made her a unique target for criticism. Nevertheless, throughout her time in the White House and after, she has chosen to look past her racist and sexist critics and focus instead on enacting change and serving her community.

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