Michelle Obama confessed that her years in the White House were a whirlwind during an appearance before thousands of convention-goers at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women in Center City on Tuesday, but the former first lady stayed largely away from politics and the current president.
“The last eight to 10 years I felt like I was just running. It felt like being shot out of a cannon,” Obama said. “I was trying to develop initiatives and keep the girls’ lives normal. It was a constant feeling of not doing enough.”
In an hour-long discussion moderated by television writer and producer Shonda Rimes, Obama dispensed career advice to the women at the conference, encouraging them to “make your voice heard, or speak up, even in the White House.” During her career as a lawyer, Obama said, “a lot of times at the table I would realize someone’s an impostor, like ‘You are a fool.’ ”
Currently, she’s working on completing a book that should be released “around this time next year.”
She also commented briefly on the carnage in Las Vegas: “My heart goes out to the victims and their families.”
Obama didn’t mention President Trump by name during the session, though she seemed to allude to him. “On our campaign trail [in 2008] the bar just kept moving. You’d meet it and then the bar would change,” Obama said.
Referring to the White House now, she lowered her hand in a step-down motion and said: “It’s amazing to watch.”
She also chided older politicians who “don’t give up their seats” to a new generation. “Young people don’t know how to get into politics … and that’s partly because some politicians hold on a little too long,” Obama said. “It’s a bubble of isolation, and some parts of you can lose touch. So it’s important to make way for young people.” It was unclear if she was referring to political dynasties such as the Clintons and the Bushes, or to Washington in general.
Obama told the crowd that her parent treated her and her older brother equally.
“When my father taught him how to box, I got a little pair of boxing gloves too. I was never so precious that I couldn’t be sitting right at the table,” she said. “They gave us power to be heard at a very young age. It’s also OK to teach our girls to be angry. We’re afraid when our daughters get angry, and we shouldn’t [be].”
She recalled telling her boss at her law firm that she didn’t want to be summoned to “useless” meetings. “I’m working my butt off, and I needed and asked for flexibility with my time — without a pay cut,” Obama said. “I realize the vast majority of people don’t have the option of flex time, but if you do, and you’re in the C-suite, then you have to make those arguments, or give up your seat to someone who will.”
Organizers said about 12,000 women attended the 14th annual conference, held at the Convention Center. Many of the exhibitors said they use the conference as an opportunity to network and expand their small businesses.
“I run a woman-owned business and this was a great draw” with Obama as the keynote speaker, said Cynthia Oliver, a Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur and social-media expert. Among issues on her radar are tax reform, Oliver said.
“I’d like to see tax rates come down. It’s hard to hire more employees and grow without that as a small business, since we are taxed almost as much as an individual.”
Kim Milligan, owner of Zane’y Couture in Clifton, N.J., said that she’s attended for a few years and that Obama “inspires women. It would be nice if she said she was running for president.”
Shani Newton of Germantown exhibited at the conference for the first time this year, as the owner of Dolly’s Boutique. She came “because it’s a time to meet women from all walks of life. Plus, we’re looking for encouragement and the Obamas gave us that. I’m also watching tax reform and how it will affect my business.”
Moriah Muse traveled from Boston to hear the former first lady and show her wares at the conference. As cofounder of HerStory Apparel, “this is our target audience, smart entrepreneurial women.” She sells T-shirts highlighting women “left out of history” such as Calamity Jane and Emily Roebling, a lead engineer who helped complete the Brooklyn Bridge.