Michelle Obama Reflects on White House "Standard of Ethics," Urges Women to "Speak Up"

Michelle Obama - First Public Appearance - Getty - H 2017
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The former first lady sat down for a discussion with Shonda Rhimes at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on Tuesday.

Former first lady Michelle Obama made a special appearance at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on Tuesday, where she was interviewed by Shonda Rhimes.

Although speaking about female empowerment and courage, Obama couldn’t help but quip about the current political climate.

Reflecting on the previous eight years that her and her former commander-in-chief husband spent in the White House, Obama said she honored how her husband treated and respected his presidential role.  

“For the last eight years, we had a standard of ethics, a lot of constraints. What it means to have a commander-in-chief that actually upholds the standards of the White House,” Obama joked as the audience cheered.

When discussing the varied struggles that women face today, she highlighted a difference between what was noticeable then versus in today’s societal climate.

“We as women feel like we have to be perfect all of the time. We worry too much about that. Women, minorities, the bars are different,” Obama explained. “We experienced that over the last eight years. The bar just kept moving. We’re seeing that now, quite frankly. The bar is just—,” Obama abruptly stopped, laughing as she lowered her hand further down.

Obama further added that she hopes women use their frustrations to speak up and share their voice. “It’s amazing to watch. I want women to pay attention, because this is what happens when we don’t stand up,” she said. “We give our seats up to those who are supposed to be there, because of the stereotypes of what power and success is supposed to be.”

The former first lady then referenced the “Imposter syndrome" she's experienced.

“I’ve been at so many tables and met so many fools who are imposters, but shame on us if we just let an imposter put us down," she said. "When you know what’s right and you don’t say anything, you see wrong happening and you sit quietly, that’s what I want women to challenge to be, to speak up. We don’t get to the right answers without raising our voices.”

When Rhimes asked what Obama wishes, the former first lady pressed for empathy.

“To see the humanity in others. If we could just operate with a level of empathy and give one another the benefit of the doubt just a little more … as opposed to pointing and blaming,” urged Obama.

When asked what makes this time period different for children, Obama believes that many young people are aware of when something is wrong.

“I think they’re more open in ways and less tolerant of obvious inequities. This generation will look at what is happening now in the world and say, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ because they know what they were taught,” she explained. “They’ve been raised with an openness. Many kids today only know that Barack Obama was their president. They grew up only under hope and opportunity. I think now they will be less tolerant and feel some of what is happening now as what they intrinsically know is not what they were taught.”

The former first lady stressed the importance of educating all students, possibly referencing the ongoing DACA controversy.

“We’re okay spending $30,000 to 40,000 for some kids, but we want to count pennies and count taxes when we talk about education for the vast majority of kids,” she pointed out.

When talking about the role people can play in making a difference, Obama highlighted the importance of abiding by beliefs. “People overlook the things they have the most power over. I know some people who will go to a protest and do something big on an issue, but they won’t deal with the same issue in their own home," she said.

Obama also emphasized the importance of diversity in Congress, after noticing the inequities existing while serving as first lady. 

“Usually at the State of the Union address, what you see is this real dichotomy. On one side of the room, it’s a feeling of color. On one side of the room, it’s gray and white. On the other side of the room, there’s yellows and blues and greens,” she recalled. “One side, all men, all white. On the other side, some women and people of color. Whenever I was sitting … I looked at that and thought, ‘No wonder people don’t trust politics. We’re not even noticing what these rooms look like.'”

With her and her husband's White House residency having ended, Obama says they are trying understand what it means to be "former" and "continue to be relevant and have a impact.”

She announced that The Obama Presidential Center will be hosting its first summit at the end of the month, where it will continue to do work on building the next generation of leaders: “We want to be a place where young people can train and develop and be the next leaders of the world.”

Towards the end of the discussion, Obama was surprised by a special recorded message by her husband to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

“Your strength, grace, determination, honesty and the fact that you look so good doing all of this, it’s remarkable. It’s no wonder that as people got to know you as I got to know you, that they fell in love,” said Barack. “It’s truly the best decision I ever made to be persistent enough to ask you out on a date that you finally gave in, and I hope you feel the same way.”