Obama was interviewed by Tracee Ellis Ross, and the two had a wide-ranging conversation about motherhood, mentorship and finding hope, which was peppered with humor throughout. “As two friends that text each other, I still cannot call her Michelle,” Ross joked, after the two took the stage to a standing ovation. “You make me think I want to curtsey.”
The conference, which originated in Washington, D.C., in 2016, featured a range of speakers throughout the day discussing racism, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, equal pay and other gender issues, with speakers that included actresses (Jane Fonda, Yara Shahidi, Connie Britton), activists (#MeToo founder Tarana Burke and Time’s Up leader Tina Tchen), politicians (California Sen. Kamala Harris, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti) and grassroots community leaders.
The organization announced several initiatives: one million actions for gender equality, mapping the women’s movement, launching an ambassador program and a digital content partnership with Awesomeness TV.
Ross asked Obama about how she learned to use her voice, and the former first lady said she has been outspoken since she was a little girl, at age 4, challenging her grandfather Dandy, who bullied her grandmother. “Nobody contradicted Dandy except for me,” Obama said, noting that she wrote about the experience in her forthcoming book, Becoming, which is due out in November.
Obama, wearing a white dress by the designer Rachel Comey and her hair in loose waves, praised her mother Marian Robinson for being her “rock and role model,” and added that the equal love her father, Fraser Robinson, showed to her, teaching her to play catch alongside her brother, Craig, for example, built her confidence as a woman.
“I knew at a young age I was smart and made sense,” she said, urging the young women in attendance to “surround yourself with the people you want to be.”
“There was never anything off limits,” Obama said of her childhood, adding that her parents never used baby talk and included her in grown-up conversations, including teaching her the value of money by having her participate in the bill-paying process.
“I try to be open with my girls, and encourage them to use their voice, even when they’re at the dinner table with Barack Obama,” she said. The mention of the former president’s name made the crowd go wild. “I’m not going to tell him you reacted this way,” she joked. “I’m going to tell him his name didn’t even come up.”
“In light of the last election, I’m concerned about us as women,” Obama said, taking a serious turn. “What is going on in our heads that we let that happen? What are girls dreaming about when the most qualified person running was a woman and look what we did? If we are still suspicious of each other, and have this crazy bar for each other … if we are not comfortable that a woman could be our president as compared to what? … That’s on us.
“I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do and be ok because watching men fail up is frustrating,” she continued. “We hold ourselves to these impossible standards.”
Obama said that she felt her generation of women was still pretty limited in terms of ambition. “If we want our daughters to dream bigger than we did we still have work to do. … A lot of us have gotten to the table, but we are so grateful to be at the table that we are afraid to shake it up. Now, just holding onto our seats at the table is not enough to help our girls.”
She also put the responsibility on men, as well: “You can’t whisper magical thoughts in your daughter’s ear and go into a workplace where you tolerate [this] existence. If you are tolerating that, that’s the workplace that will be waiting for your little girl, and you have sold her a bill of goods.”
Ross asked Obama how she stays motivated. “It gets daunting,” she admitted.
When a voice from the crowd suggested that she run for office, the former first lady shut down the idea. “I don’t think I’m any different than Hillary [Clinton]. It’s not about finding one right person who can save us, it’s us.
“We still didn’t get ‘Yes, we can,'” she said of Barack Obama’s famous call to action. “Until we get that right, we have a lot of work to do before we focus on the who.”
She urged women to focus on what they can control, starting with their own families. “The job I have control over is who my girls are,” Obama said, adding, “You all have more influence in the lives of the people who love you than I do. Start in your circle, practice that.
“You can always find hope,” she said. “I find hope in all these beautiful young people. … You don’t have to be first lady or president or run for anything to make change.”
The message? You can work for gender equality by simply speaking up to a family member, someone like grandfather Dandy.
At the end of the conversation, Ross drew close and said, if she’s to be believed for the first time, “Thank you, Michelle!”