Photo: Gage Skidmore
Michelle Obama was in Brooklyn on Saturday night for her “Becoming” book tour when she did something that surprised the people around her. She used an expletive. But perhaps more shocking was how she deployed the curse word to denounce a feminist philosophy that has recently informed working women’s outlook.
“Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all,” Obama said. “It ain’t equal. I tell women that whole ‘you can have it all’—mmm, nope, not at the same time, that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to ‘lean in’ because that s–t doesn’t work.”
Obama quickly cut herself off and apologized to the room for getting too comfortable onstage. But her words have an element of truth that Sheryl Sandberg’s optimistic ideology about “leaning in” to have it all doesn’t take into account.
Women are steadily pursuing education and entering the workforce at higher rates, and those gains show that at least a sizable number of the female population want a career or purpose outside the household. But women still carry most of the burden as caregivers for children and elderly parents, and between 2001 and 2015, only 28% of women worked persistently full-time, year-around. In our current economy, that puts them at a severe disadvantage in terms of job opportunity and growth.
According to a new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women who had worked at some point between 2001 and 2015 made 49% of what men did across the 15-year span. In a 2015 essay, New York Magazine contributing editor Lisa Miller explained how the labor force’s unkind treatment of women affects not only older workers, but also young, ambitious professionals looking for role models.
“No single woman’s experience of success is generalizable to all women; in spite of all the millions of books sold, Sheryl Sandberg only really knows what worked for her,” Miller wrote. “The better plan would be for a young woman to enter a workplace and, upon looking around, see lots and lots and lots of established, successful females from which to collate a vision of herself.”
Right now, that vision is a pipe dream — experts say even women such as Sandberg who have pioneered paths that make “leaning in” seem possible fall under scrutiny their male counterparts somehow avoid when their companies are in crisis.
Though Obama may have wished she had worded her response differently, the uproarious applause it solicited is likely not only a sign of approval because the former First Lady let loose. It’s also an indication of how much the message resonated with women who are trying to make a name for themselves but keep stumbling into a system that works against them, with people such as Obama as their few available role models.
“A good workplace is one in which you can look around and see versions of yourself five years from now, or ten,” Miller wrote. “But for women, this exercise in mirroring gets harder and harder as they push toward 40, and 50, and beyond — for the simple reason that older women with ambition don’t stick around.”