When Michelle Obama moves into the White House next year, she will immediately become the most famous member of one of Washington’s most powerful and exclusive clubs: the Michelles. Here’s a short list:
- Michele Bachmann represents Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District in Congress.
- Michelle Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and an MSNBC political analyst.
- Michelle Fenty is a lawyer married to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
- Michelle Malkin is a conservative commentator.
- Michele Norris hosts NPR’s All Things Considered.
- Michelle Rhee is chancellor of the D.C. public school system.
- Michele Woodward is a well-known life coach and former White House Advance Office staffer under Reagan.
Why so many Michelles?
That’s easy. It was an insanely popular name in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it peaked in popularity in 1968. (The members of the D.C. gang were born between 1956 and 1970.) We can also blame the Beatles—their 1966 Grammy Award-winning song, “Michelle,” came out at about the same time the name broke into the top 10 baby names in the United States. (For what it’s worth, at least two Michelles—Martin and Woodward—despise the song.)
Harder to explain than popularity is power. Part of it, of course, could just be sheer volume—there are also a lot of powerful Amys and Marys around, two other popular names of the era. Name expert Pam Satran, co-founder of Nameberry, theorizes that because the name was so popular for so long, it effectively escapes stereotyping and allows Michelles more freedom to be themselves. It’s much easier to be a Michelle, she says, than to be a Hillary or Condoleezza, to choose two names at random. A Hillary—again, speaking purely hypothetically—might have had to prove she was more serious than her name gave her credit for.
Unsurprisingly, the Michelles have theories of their own. When meeting another Michelle, Bernard always asks whether it’s two L’s or one. Over the years, she has noticed that Michelles tend to be taller, like herself and Obama, while Micheles tend to be shorter. (Whether height equals power is another question entirely.)
Enough with the theory. What do Washington’s Michelles plan to do with all their power? Not even unnamed sources would say. (That’s a joke.) Although the group doesn’t regularly hold secret meetings, Woodward threw a “Michelle” party six years ago after realizing how many friends she had with the same name, and Norris attended. Woodward doesn’t currently plan to have another get-together, she said, but if she did, she’d invite everyone on Slate’s list—including Obama.
Which brings up a sensitive topic: How will the new Michelle fit in? To a Michelle, members of the current group say they are proud to have a namesake in the White House. (Norris even danced with Obama at a community center in South Carolina.)
But that doesn’t mean that the transition won’t have its bumps. It’s impossible to compete with a “hotness” like Obama’s, says Martin. And Norris points out that the first lady probably won’t be called Michelle, at least while she’s in Washington. “That’s what happens when you move into 1600 Pennsylvania,” she says. “She’ll remain Michelle in print, but that’s about it. We’ll keep the name alive on her behalf.”
They may also want to keep a lookout for any rising stars (and rivals) with popular names from the 1980s. If none of these Michelles is able to finally break that glass ceiling, maybe Jessica, Ashley, Jennifer, or Amanda will.
Correction, Nov. 21, 2008: This article originally stated that Michel Martin is a correspondent for ABC News. She hosts NPR’s Tell Me More and is no longer affiliated with ABC News. (Return to the corrected sentence.)