How Michelle Obama threw us a lifeline

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi and the author of the forthcoming book, “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Jill Filipovic: Michelle Obama spoke for many when she told Oprah Winfrey: "We are feeling what not having hope feels like"

Filipovic: A post-White House Michelle Obama will be able speak her mind and pursue and advocate for things she believes in

CNN  — 

Michelle Obama said something stunning this week: Discussing the election of Donald Trump, she told Oprah Winfrey, in a clip that aired Friday on CBS, “We are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

Welcome to the club.

For many women across the United States, Mrs. Obama occupies a similar role to that of Ms. Winfrey: a widely admired, deeply trusted and well-liked figure who has broken barriers without breaking down the ways so many of us relate to her.

Obama is careful and polished, but her public persona is less meticulously measured than that of her husband, the President. She is the rare American figure who is both aspirational and relatable.

michelle obama
Michelle Obama: I don't feel hope right now
01:47 - Source: CNN

So when she asks, “What else do you have if you don’t have hope?” in a moment when so many Americans have expressed hopelessness at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency – worried sick about a President-elect who ran a campaign infused with embitterment, misogyny, and racism, who seems happy to disregard some of our nation’s oldest democratic norms and who may have been helped along by Russian interference – she’s telling us that she’s walking this scary path right along with us.

Perversely, hearing Mrs. Obama talk has made me the most hopeful I’ve felt since Election Day.

Here’s why: As First Lady, she had to play according to conservative, conformist rules, and as the country’s first African-American First Lady, she had to take extra care to maintain an image of sophistication and excellence.

Once her husband is out of the White House, she’ll be significantly freer – to speak her mind, pursue her own passions and advocate for the things she believes in.

Michelle Obama has been clear she doesn’t have electoral ambitions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to retreat from the worlds of politics and advocacy. She is, after all, a brilliant and ambitious woman with years of notable work under her belt, from her years in private legal practice, to her work in the public sector, to running a nonprofit, to working in academia.

Her biography has naturally been overshadowed by the President’s, but Michelle Obama’s life has been one of hard work and substantial accomplishment, much of it in the service of making the world — certainly her community – a better place.

What she’ll do next is still a question mark. Perhaps it’ll be something in the health universe, along the lines of her “Let’s Move” program promoting child and adolescent health. And maybe now she’ll have the ability to go bolder – her ambitions to change the American food system were thwarted by corporate food interests that have immense influence in Congress. Even what she could say in public seemed inhibited by her husband’s position.

When she’s no longer the First Lady, perhaps we’ll see her taking a louder and more forceful stand.

Or maybe we’ll see her embrace the important issues long neglected by prominent politicians. I would personally love to see her promote abortion rights, which have been deemed too controversial for full-throated advocacy from many middle-of-the road Democrats, or maternal health – African American women, after all, continue to die during pregnancy or childbirth in astounding and shameful numbers, and their plight has been largely ignored by the political establishment.

Perhaps like Michelle Obama, I’ve spent the past month in what feels like a bottomless well of hopelessness. I know I’m not alone – and that she just threw out a lifeline.