At Monday’s White House Summit on Working Families, Gloria Steinem, speaking on panel about “career ladders and leadership,” said that when it comes to leadership, women “need to question what we’re imitating."
"It’s not like we’re going to imitate what’s there," she added. "We’re going to transform what’s there.”
Michelle Obama is attempting to do exactly that as first lady. Whereas Hillary Clinton once drew fire for suggesting that she had better things to do than stay home and bake cookies, Obama has defined herself as a wife and mother first. This, despite being just the third first lady to hold a postgraduate degree—after Clinton and Laura Bush—and having continued working throughout marriage and motherhood. Far from imitating the first ladies who have come before her, she has forged her own path by choosing to acknowledge that it wasn’t—and isn’t—always easy to be a working mom but that, for her, being a mother comes first.
In her closing remarks at Monday's summit, the first lady reminded critics and supporters alike that she is not backing down or “leaning out” by calling herself “mom-in-chief”—in fact, she’s doing the opposite. When her husband assumed office six years ago, Obama said she decided to focus on her two daughters. “The truth of the matter was that whether I’m the first lady and he’s the president, our first job is make sure that our kids are on point,” she said. “That is the most important legacy we will ever leave.”
Women often tell themselves they should be able to “do it all,” the first lady said. But doing it all is hard, and maybe unrealistic. Instead, Obama said, women and men should push for incremental change. “The fight isn’t about us,” Obama said today. “It’s for every mother and father out there who doesn’t have the leverage [we did]. We’re fighting for them. Because we know how bad it is. We know how tough it is.”
The first lady challenged women “at the top” to shift the dialogue to the challenges facing working families for men and women with less political power who cannot risk their jobs or paycheck by asking for more.
“We have to change the public conversation,” she said. By declaring herself “mom-in-chief,” that’s exactly what she’s hoping to do.
This post has been updated.