Who Is Sheila Miyoshi Jager, the Woman Barack Obama Reportedly Proposed to Before Michelle?

Suzy Byrne
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Sheila Miyoshi Jager
In Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Sheila Miyoshi Jager said she turned down two marriage proposals from Barack Obama in the 1980s. (Photo: Rosen-Jones Photography)

Barack Obama clearly ended up with the right woman, but with news of his pre-Michelle marriage proposal making headlines, our curiosity about Sheila Miyoshi Jager was piqued.

In Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Jager told Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David J. Garrow that she had been seriously involved with the future president in the mid- to late ’80s and early ’90s. Not only did they move in together, but he proposed marriage — twice. However, Obama’s political ambitions reportedly did them in; a mutual friend of the couple recounted that Obama explained that “the lines are very clearly drawn: If I am going out with a white woman, I have no standing here.” (For the record, Jager is of Dutch and Japanese ancestry.) Garrow wrote that Obama “felt trapped between the woman he loved and the destiny he knew was his,” implying that race factored into the Chicago politico’s decision to settle down with Michelle.

According to the book, Jager met Obama in the mid-’80s while doing community organizing in Chicago. Things turned romantic and they moved in together.

“In the winter of ’86, when we visited my parents, he asked me to marry him,” Jager, 53, recalled. She said that she turned down his proposal not for racial reasons but because her parents were concerned about Obama’s professional prospects and thought that Jager, then 23, was too young. (On the issue of race, a close family friend of Jager’s parents said that Obama came across to them like “a white, middle-class kid.”)

The following year, when Obama turned 25, Jager said that he became “very ambitious” and suddenly “had his sights on becoming president.” Their romance continued until two years later, when Obama, then 27, was leaving for Harvard Law School. Before he left, he proposed to Jager a second time, asking her to move to Cambridge with him. She said no, as she had plans to travel to Korea for dissertation research. She recalled that she had resented his assumption that she would automatically postpone her career for his.

After his first year at Harvard, Obama returned to Chicago as a summer associate at the law firm Sidley Austin. That’s where he met Michelle Robinson, who worked there, and they went on their first date. Jager said that Obama continued seeing her on and off for another year after she arrived at Harvard on a teaching fellowship. “I always felt bad about it,” she said.

Sheila Miyoshi Jager giving a lecture. (Photo via YouTube)
Sheila Miyoshi Jager giving a lecture. (Photo via YouTube)

The book noted that after Obama married Michelle in 1992, his only contact with Jager was the occasional letter (after the 9/11 attacks) and phone call (he reached out to ask if a biographer had contacted her). The author also noted that Obama’s romantic choice — marrying Michelle over Jager — was influenced by his political ambitions, the implication being that Michelle was a more suitable partner than Jager.

While Obama went on to pursue his political career, Jager continued in the academic world. Currently a professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College, she received her bachelor of arts from Bennington College in 1984, her master of arts from Middlebury College in 1985, and her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1994.

Jager has written three books about Asia, and her expertise is on Korea. The third, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (2013), was selected to participate in the National Book Festival and named by Foreign Affairs as one of the best books on Asia-Pacific that year. She’s currently at work on a fourth book, about the great power struggle over the Korean Peninsula at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here’s Jager lecturing on the continuing Korean divide in 2015:

According to an article in the Amherst News-Times, Jager has personal connections to Korea — her husband of two and a half decades, historian Jiyul Kim, is a Korean-American veteran of the U.S. Army, and his parents lived through the war, coming to America just after its end. Kim also works at Oberlin (since 2012), as a visiting professor in the history department. His expertise is in East Asia, the Cold War, and U.S. foreign policy. He has been teaching in the history department each spring since 2012.

They have children, including a son who attended West Point and was once sent to guard the border between North and South Korea.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend the Inaugural Ball on January 21, 2013 in Washington, United States. (Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage)
Former President Barack Obama with Michelle Obama in 2013. (Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage)

Of course, Barack Obama tied the knot with Michelle Robinson in 1992, and they welcomed daughters Malia and Sasha in 1998 and 2001. During that time, Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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