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"Rebel" With a Cause -- Michelle Obama's Inspiring Role

"Rebel" With a Cause -- Michelle Obama's Inspiring Role

By Alexis Simendinger - June 7, 2011

I had just finished reading a new article in Newsweek about Michelle Obama titled "White House Rebel," when I found myself in the State Dining Room on Tuesday, listening as the first lady encouraged a small group of local girls from high schools and the Girl Scouts and Girls Inc. to consider careers in diplomacy, public service and politics.

The occasion was the official visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House. The messages to these girls from the first lady and Brooke Anderson, the chief of staff to the White House National Security Council, were simple: smart and hard-working women can do anything, even rise, as did Merkel, to become known as the "most powerful woman in the world."

It crossed my mind that Mrs. Obama was not really a rebel, but actually a remarkably faithful torch carrier in 2011 for the very American aims and ambitions of many first ladies spanning the last 80 years, and even longer.

The au courant touches on Tuesday might have been the first lady's repeated use of "you guys" to address her female guests, or maybe her amazing false eyelashes worn with a smashing silk summer dress, or the wad of chewing gum one of the young ladies shyly placed in a drinking cup, which was then spirited away by a White House steward.

But the message Michelle Obama delivered to the 26 delighted-looking young visitors before afternoon dessert was well-sweetened by her predecessors. "I want you all to know that no matter where you come from, or what you look like, or how much money your family may have, you can have a real impact on the world," the first lady said. "And that's a message that we try to tell young people all across the world."

Mrs. Obama referred to Hillary Clinton -- her husband's Democratic challenger for the presidency, a former first lady and now secretary of state. Mrs. Clinton was and remains a champion of women's rights as human rights around the world. She delivered nearly identical speeches in the same room during the 1990s, and she brought her activism on behalf of women to her State Department staff and programs.

Laura Bush, widely perceived as a first lady in the traditional mold, became an energetic advocate in the White House for the rights and education of women and girls in Afghanistan. In her husband's second term, she denounced the military junta in Burma and threw the weight of her advocacy behind imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the fall of 2007, when an African-American and a woman competed for the Democratic nomination, Mrs. Bush told this reporter she thought America was clearly ready for a woman as president, and had many role models globally to contemplate. To herald Africa's first elected female president in 2006, in Liberia, Mrs. Bush led the U.S. delegation. Her advocacy was genuine for the interests of women and girls in the United States and abroad.

"We're not the leader in this race," she emphasized in an interview. "There are so many women presidents around the world now. There are really a lot. I mean, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Michelle Bachelet in Chile. The president of Latvia is a woman [Vaira Vike-Freiberga] . . . and there have been previous presidents that were women around the world."

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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