Speaking to more than 12,000 women as if she were their wise, down-to-earth and funny girlfriend, former first lady Michelle Obama advised those at the 14th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women to use their place at the table to speak up for themselves and their communities.
“Don’t waste your seat, ” she said. “If you’re not going to use your voice, give it to somebody who will.”
The conference offered a full day of networking and professional development programs led by experts in business, philanthropy and leadership.
Mayor Jim Kenney welcomed participants, and Gov. Tom Wolf offered afternoon remarks. Wolf urged more work on supporting women who run for national office. There are no women in congress from Pennsylvania.
Looking fit and wearing one of her signature dresses (which she joked will be the main attraction at the Obama library), Michelle Obama engaged in an hourlong, wide-ranging conversation with TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes.
The two women discussed everything from the pros and cons of living in the White House, to monitoring their daughters’ use of technology, to Obama’s choice of comfort food — “Salt. Chips. Fries. Pizza. When I want comfort, I go for a good chip.”
She called on parents to combat society’s tendency to disempower young women at an early age.
She described those slights as “small cuts.”
“Like some man ogling at your body as you walk down the street. Maybe that feels minor, but that does something to you,” she said. “Or the teacher who told you you weren’t good enough, told you to put your hand down, and you never got called on. Small cuts.”
And while she said she understood why those cuts could prevent women from being more effective in the workplace, Obama debunked the notion of “impostor syndrome” — the idea women are generally less confident than men in the workplace and — because of that — feel like a fraud.
Many men don’t have those kinds of struggles, even when they’re less qualified, Obama said.
“I’ve seen impostors at a lot of tables. And you’re at the table, and you realize ,’Oh, you are a fool!’ And I worry about raising my hand?” she said to rousing applause and laughter.
The talk concluded with a surprise video message from Barack Obama, who wished his wife a happy 25th anniversary.
And though Obama kept political talk to a minimum, the former president’s gesture made many women, including Meg Joy, wistful for the recent past, when the Obamas occupied the White House.
“I think Michelle should be our next president,” Joy said.