Michelle Obama’s fans have often remarked that she comes across as authentic even as her every move is analyzed, and sometimes criticized.
One such moment of candor occurred this weekend, as the former first lady took the stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the latest stop on the arena-filling tour for her memoir Becoming.
As she spoke with her friend and poet Elizabeth Alexander, Obama talked about the challenges of balancing career and family.
“Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all,” she said, according to Vanity Fair. “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 shit doesn’t work.”
The writer and cultural commentator Touré was there, and tweeted that the audience “freaked out” when Obama used the curse word – and that the former first lady herself said she “forgot where she was for a moment.”
Cell phone cameras were rolling as she realized what she’d said.
“I’m back now,” Obama said, smiling and looking a bit sheepish. She rephrased her assessment. “But sometimes that stuff doesn’t work.”
“So oftentimes it’s not equal. And you feel a bit resentful about it. And so then it’s time to go to marriage counseling,” she added, to delighted laughter from the audience.
Obama’s mention of ‘lean in’ was a reference to Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra and 2013 book that called on women to be more assertive in the workplace. Sandberg has been under scrutiny following a New York Times report last month that she had played an active role in a campaign to discredit Facebook’s critics.
On Twitter, some took offense to Obama’s use of a curse word.
But many were delighted at the glimpse of a more casual Obama, perhaps freer now than in the White House years.
“I love it. She can say whatever she wants now. Finally,” tweeted one person.
“This is how I picture Auntie Mich in er’yday convo cause she’s a real one,” wrote another.
“She’s right you know,” tweeted another. “There was a generation of us who were told we could have it all and felt somewhat a failure when we knew we couldn’t. Thanks for validating what we knew all along, Michelle.”
The advice for women to “lean in” has been criticized before.
In a widely read 2012 essay in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote of the impossible situations many women confront as they try to balance career and family. Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State (and who is now CEO and president at think tank New America), wrote:
“When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, ‘she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.’ Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?’ “
Sandberg herself has acknowledged that despite plenty of leaning, the world hasn’t made much progress toward equal representation of women since her book came out in 2013.
“In terms of women in leadership roles, we are not better off,” she told USA Today last year. “We are stuck at less than 6 percent of the Fortune 500 CEO jobs and their equivalent in almost every country in the world. There were 19 countries run by women when Lean In was published. Today there are 11. Congressional numbers have inched up a tiny bit. And so, overall, we are not seeing a major increase in female leadership in any industry or in any government in the world, and I think that’s a shame.”
The goal, she said, is for women to run half of all companies, and men to run half of all homes.
“As much as I wish that could happen in four years, I don’t think that’s a likely time period,” said Sandberg. “But I think it can happen sooner than we think. Part of it is having that aspiration and that goal. I think we too often suffer from the tyranny of low expectations.”