Oprah, Michelle Obama Talk Power, Equality and POTUS' "Swaggalicious" Walk at United State of Women Summit
The Tuesday event at the White House — which shed light on women's issues — also welcomed Amy Poehler, Shonda Rhimes, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, whose call to action was this: "We need to change the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive."
The United State of Women Summit at the White House June 14 was an all-day grrrl-powerhouse packed with politics and pop culture. The event aimed to galvanize 5,000 women and the men who love them, shed light on women’s issues — from campus sexual assault to pay equity to educational opportunities — and move the needle on gender and LGBT equality.
Speakers ranked among Hollywood royalty and the nation’s highest-profile public servants — including POTUS, as well as Oprah Winfrey in a discussion with Michelle Obama.
As the Obamas and Vice President Joe Biden took the stage, each took a moment to reflect on the profound sadness of the Orlando terrorist attack, and many of their fellow speakers followed suit.
Biden drew cheers from the audience with his plea to give victims of sexual abuse a greater voice and to provide strong female role models for our girls and boys — because, the Veep said, “You can tell if the man you’re working with respects you. And it’s probable that, if he does, he has a strong mother.”
President Obama stopped by and delivered a rousing monologue, charging the crowd with this: “If we’re going to change our policies and our politics, we’re going to have to change something else: the way we see ourselves.” He went on to explain that even those of us who believe we’re feminists are likely still “boxed in by stereotypes of how we think men and women should behave.”
His call to action was this: “We need to change the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive. That criticizes our girls for speaking out and our boys for shedding a tear…that punishes women for their sexuality but gives men a pat on the back for theirs.”
He went on to encourage the media to depict more women in STEM roles “because it’s hard to be what you can’t see,” although he pointed out that the young women of his daughters’ generation “think it’s weird that a woman hasn’t been president yet.” And apparently, “They also think that discrimination is for losers” — he added in a thinly veiled barb at the presumptive GOP nominee.
Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, told THR the White House sees Hollywood as a partner in the fight to advance women’s equality. “We have the ability through media and entertainment to shape the values of our culture,” Jarrett offered. “We have to normalize seeing women in positions of power.” As an example, Jarrett pointed to one of the day’s presenters, Shonda Rhimes: “She owns Thursday night,” Jarrett said. “The messages that she's able to communicate through television are persuasive and compelling. She's dealt with everything from rape to conversion therapy to all sorts of sexual and mental abuse and the importance of quality healthcare.”
Jarrett added that Hollywood figures have a unique ability to bring messages into our cultural conversation. “When Connie Britton stands up and talks about health care, everybody thinks of her as Mom,” says Jarrett. “She's a trusted face and someone America loves and listens to. Celebrities have an enormous power to communicate."
To that end, the White House drew upon relationships with celebrities and the issues they care passionately about to populate the summit roster: Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is healing, education and advocacy around rape and sexual assault; Kerry Washington’s Purple Purse Foundation, which helps free victims of domestic abuse who are being financially controlled by their partner; and Patricia Arquette for her famously outspoken position on pay equity.
Sarah Jones, who wrote and starred in the Tony Award-winning one-woman show Bridge & Tunnel, drew the crowd to its feet after she offered a perspective on respecting diversity through the lens of the many personas she brings to life (“Our whole country is built on immigrants," she said. "Unless you are Native American, you are an immigrant.”)
But the centerpiece of the event was an armchair conversation between FLOTUS and Oprah, with the two discussing how to maintain a positive self-image in a world where women are bombarded with messages about how they’re not “good enough” (Michelle’s advice: “Know yourself” — and feel comfortable in that space, because “It takes knowing who you are in order to deal with the onslaught of negative messages”), how to achieve a work-life-family balance (“You can have it all, just not all at once,” says Michelle), what moments in their lives did they just sit back and think Mmmmm, mmmm, mmmmm, it’s good to be me (Michelle listed seeing Prince and Stevie Wonder perform together at the White House and the feeling she gets when seeing her husband walk off Marine One and into the Oval Office with that “swaggalicious” walk of his). Michelle also offered up her advice to men: “Be better. At everything.”
Amy Poehler, who founded the online community Smart Girls to give young women a place to see themselves “not as objects or sidekicks, but as the beautiful people they are,” said she founded her organization because she just wants what every person wants: “For Sasha and Malia to like us.”
Then she allowed herself to get serious for a moment: “Not only can we do whatever men can do, but we can do most things better,” Poehler asserted. “Our frustration comes from when people get in the way of us being at the wheel. Let us drive, we can get there faster and safer. Here’s to the road ahead.”