It’s time for a revolution in the way women are treated in our societies, from the youngest of girls to the budding professionals to experienced business leaders being considered or passed over for corporate boards and executive posts.
That was the message former first lady Michelle Obama brought to Montreal for one of the few appearances she has made since she and former U.S. president Barack Obama left the White House just over a year ago.
She spoke of confronting and overcoming prejudice, sexism and her own insecurities to become a successful woman, and about her eight years in the world’s spotlight.
And she said it is up to adults — particularly the business leaders present at Montreal’s Palais des congrès — to ensure that young girls are encouraged, challenged and given the same opportunities as young boys. But it is also up to young people themselves to pursue as much education as possible.
“I urge young people to take school seriously,” she said. “On this one, please listen to your parents and get as much education as you can.”
Throughout her own educational career, which took her to Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Obama said she was continuously made to feel she was somehow lacking what it took to succeed, something she attributed to her gender and her skin colour.
“I was confident, but there was always that doubt in the back of my mind. But I had enough confidence in me to push through that. I got into Princeton and then I realized, what was the big deal about this place? I’m just as smart as this guy sitting next to me,” she said, adding that the same thing happened at Harvard, and in the workplace, when she practised as a lawyer.
“The more I achieved, the more tables I got to sit around and measure myself against others, the more I realized that this stuff isn’t so hard and I’m actually very capable.”
This mindset is slowly changing for other women, propelled by social movements and strong female role models, but how fast the change occurs is ultimately up to men who must make room in executive offices and board tables, Obama said.
“Right now, women are so absent from so many tables. People of colour and different experiences are so absent at all these tables that there are perspectives people just don’t have. Men just don’t know everything … That’s not a criticism; that’s just a fact.”
Tatiana Nazon, 47, and daughter Kimsha Pierre, 23, were among those who came to hear Obama speak, calling her an inspiration.
Speaking before the event, Nazon said she would like to see Obama continue exerting her influence in the political arena by running for office and creating a political dynasty.
But during her appearance, Obama flatly rejected calls for her to seek election.
“I’m not running for anything. Politics is not in my future,” she said near the end of a question-and-answer session before the audience of 10,000 people, mostly women.
“My passion is not politics. My passion is social change.”
As she settles into a post-politics life, Obama is championing education and the empowerment of women and girls. Her memoirs are soon to be published, and the Obama Foundation is being created to continue the work the couple have championed.
Obama kept circling back to these issues during her talk, though she also took a couple of thinly veiled digs at her husband’s successor in the Oval Office, Donald Trump.
At one point, she spoke about her elder daughter, Malia, who recently thanked her for showing her how to be a “strong woman.” Obama credited her own solid upbringing for giving her the character and foundation to withstand the tumult and stress of life in the world’s most powerful building between 2008 and 2016.
“The presidency doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are,” she said, as the crowd, thinking of Trump, erupted in laughter and cheers. “It’s like being thrown into the ocean … If you can’t swim, the ocean will reveal that because you fall back and when you’re in stress, all you have is who you are.”
In a lighter moment, Obama revealed that while flying to Montreal for the event, she and some of her fellow passengers joined in a chorus of the title song from The Sound of Music.
“While we were crossing the border coming into Canada … We were thinking about what if we had to leave our country and go to another place,” she said. “We’d come here.”