Remarks by the First Lady at the National Women’s Partnership Luncheon

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–June 9, 2011 – 1:26 P.M. EDT

     MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  You all, thank you so much.  (Applause.)  Oh, I can’t really see you out there, but I feel you.  (Laughter.) 

     It’s great to be here.  First of all, let me thank Debra for her leadership and her passion and her smarts and her grace and for that really nice introduction.  (Laughter.) 

     I also want to thank Ellen Malcolm for her leadership on your board and for all of her work on behalf of women across this country. 

     I want to recognize Sally Susman for her leadership with today’s luncheon.  I got to see her in the U.K. with the Queen.  She looked mighty fine.  (Laughter.)

     And of course I want to thank all of you for inviting me here to your annual gala luncheon.  This is a pretty big deal here.  It’s a lot of you out there.  (Laughter.) 

     It’s really nice to be back with all of you at the National Partnership for Women and Families. 

     And as you know, I was here three years ago.  I remember it really well.  You honored Deval Patrick, one of our favorite governors.  (Applause.)  It’s a great event.  I was happy to be there then and I am joyful to be here today, especially on your 40th anniversary.  Forty years.  Forty years of progress.  Now, that’s something to be really proud of.  

     You know what, let’s think about it.  Let’s think about the challenges women faced 40 years ago.  For example, in 1971, there were no women in President Nixon’s Cabinet.  None.  There was one woman in the Senate.  And we were still 10 years away from the first female on the Supreme Court. 

     I mean, back then, the ceiling wasn’t just glass, I think it was more like concrete.  (Laughter.)  There were no female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.  Only eight percent of women had a college degree, if you can imagine that.  The number of women being appointed to the federal bench was actually declining.  And women earned just 60 cents for every dollar that a man earned.  All that, and we had to deal with polyester, too.  (Laughter.)  Some tough times.  (Laughter.) 

     And that was the world we were living in when this organization was formed.  It was a world where a young girl looked to the future and saw many more hurdles and barriers than open doors and pathways to opportunity.  It was a world that made many of you say, “enough, enough.”

     And that was when a small group of you gathered in a kitchen to talk about what you needed to do to fight for discrimination — or fight against it and inequality. 

     So, you began by volunteering to take on a few important cases.  And soon enough, you needed more help so you hired some staff.  And before you knew it, you were opening an office.  And as your efforts grew, you began tackling more and more issues, steadily becoming one of the most influential organizations for women and families in our country. 

     And today, as you stop and take a breath and look back for a moment at all that you’ve accomplished, you will see that over the last four decades, you have made such an amazing imprint on nearly every single one of this nation’s major policy achievements for women and families.  And that’s something to be proud of.  (Applause.)

     I’ve heard about how back in the ‘80s, one of your staff attorneys spent countless hours in her office with little more than a vision, a typewriter — because yes, there were typewriters — (laughter) — and a whole lot of white-out.  Remember white-out?  (Laughter.)  It’s very challenging.  (Laughter.)  She was pounding away at the first draft of a document, a document that, nine years later, would become the historic Family and Medical Leave Act.

     The Partnership was also a driving force behind so many other major legislative achievements including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the paid family leave laws in California, Washington, and New Jersey, and the nation’s first citywide ordinance for paid sick days in San Francisco, and, as Debra mentioned, any day now the governor will sign the first statewide paid sick days law in Connecticut.  (Applause.)

     Thanks to your tremendous efforts, the landscape of this nation has been fundamentally changed for the better: our workplaces are more family-friendly, women and girls do have more opportunities, and many discriminatory practices have been completely abolished. 

     Because of you, America is better.  It is a better country, it is a better place to raise a child, it is a better place to work, it is a better place to pursue a dream. 

     But, fortunately, this isn’t a group that rests on its laurels.  Every one of you here knows all too well that there is still so much work left to be done.  And that’s what I want to speak briefly with you about today –- the work that remains and the people that are needed to finish that job.

     And I just want to start with the work of my husband’s administration.  Since day one, we’ve been fighting for American women and families.  As you know, my husband made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the very first bill he signed into law as President of the United States.  (Applause.)

     He created the White House Council on Women and Girls to make sure that the entire government pays attention to the interests of women, girls, and their families.  We’ve improved the earned income and child tax credits, which means that more than 12 million families will find it just a little easier to pay the bills and put food on the table. 

     My husband signed the Affordable Care Act, as you know, which makes it easier for millions — (applause) — millions of Americans to afford a doctor.  Because of this legislation, more women can get mammograms and other preventative services with no cost out of pocket.  No one will have their insurance dropped solely because they get sick, and a child won’t be denied insurance because he or she has a pre-existing condition.

     We’ve held forums and launched pilot programs to promote workplace flexibility because we know, all of us, that flexible workplaces translates into more productive workers, more satisfied employers, and more importantly a robust economy.  We all know that.  

     My husband nominated two phenomenal women — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan — to the Supreme Court.  (Applause.)  

     He has made women nearly half of his nominees to the federal bench, which is a greater percentage than any other President in history.  (Applause.)

     And the important thing is that all of these advances benefit not just women, but every American.  Yeah, they benefit men.  (Laughter.)  We’re still looking out for you guys.  (Laughter.)  They benefit our communities, our economy, and the very system of laws on which this nation is built. 

     And we know that none of that could have happened without all of you.  You all are the people who have been fighting for all of these victories.  You all have been building that broad base of support that makes this happen.  You have created a chorus of voices speaking out on behalf of families all across this country.

     And as we look ahead to the work that remains, we know our continued progress on these issues depends on all of you.

     The President established an equal pay task force to mobilize the full force of the administration in support of equal pay.  And, as you know, he supports the Paycheck Fairness Act.  But — (applause) — that’s my cheerleader right there — (laughter) — but this bill and this issue will not move forward without your help.  To make sure that we do not lose ground on the progress we’ve made on health care, we also need your help to better educate people about their rights and how the Affordable Care Act benefits them in their daily lives.  They have to know.  We need your help to continue to give a voice to all of those Americans who will ultimately be affected by these conversations and debates here in Washington.

     It is up to you to tell their stories — stories of mothers who can’t afford a child care provider, but don’t have the luxury to take time off work; stories of families that will lose their insurance if this health care law is rolled back.  Without you, millions of these families will have no voice. 

     And we need your help as we push forward on issues like paid leave and paid sick days, balance in the judiciary, educational equality.  We need you, because even today, with all the advances that we’ve made, too many women face barriers and roadblocks for reaching their full potential.  Too many girls are held back by narrow expectations and limited options. 

     So it is our job to just keep working not just for us, but for them.  We’ve got to make sure that we do everything we can so that our daughters and granddaughters can pick up wherever we leave off, which leads to the other part of what I want to talk to you about, and that is the people we need to get this job done. 

     Now, all of you have been leaders on these issues for decades.  You have played a critical role in the battles and the victories that we just talked about, celebrate.  And each of you have made progress.  As we’ve made that progress, you looked ahead to the next frontier.  You’ve looked at the next way to make an impact for women and families. 

     But if we truly want to keep moving forward, our focus must not only be on the next set of issues, but on the next set of leaders, as well.  And it’s our responsibility to engage and inspire that next generation.  It’s our responsibility to reach back and keep pulling up those promising young leaders.

     And that’s something that I’ve tried to do as First Lady, because I know that my role gives me this unique opportunity to impact young people.  So I feel a deep obligation to do everything in my power to make the most of this limited moment.

     And that’s why I’ve devoted so much of my attention to working with young women and girls right here in D.C., through the White House Leadership and Mentoring Initiative.  (Applause.)  We are celebrating those girls right after we leave here.  (Applause.)   

     We’re bringing in girls who have never been inside the White House or, for some, have barely been outside of their own neighborhoods, and we’re taking them to places that they’d never thought they’d go.  We’re taking them to meet with Supreme Court justices, sitting in the chambers.  It’s a powerful image, meeting with members of Congress, famous musicians and artists, because I want these girls to hear those stories.  I want them to see themselves in these leaders.  And I want them to realize that every path in this world is open to them, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

     And that’s the same message that I carry with me as I travel outside of our borders, because in so many ways, especially for young people today, those borders really don’t mean much anymore.  Our economies, our health, our dreams globally are all interconnected.

     So when I visited London just a couple of weeks ago, I told teenage girls there that no matter where they come from, if they push themselves and believe in themselves and work hard, they can succeed just like anyone else.  We know that.  And I delivered this message to them at Oxford, because I wanted those young women to walk through those courtyards and hallowed halls, be a part of one of the most renowned universities in the world, because I wanted them to talk to students and faculty there and begin to envision a life for themselves in such inspired settings.  It was a beautiful thing to watch.

     In Chile, I told young girls that they can compete with boys, that they can break with tradition, that they can build their own careers and fulfill every last one of their dreams. 

     And, in a couple of weeks, I’m traveling to South Africa and Botswana, because I believe that today’s generation of young women leaders in that country can carry forward the legacy handed down by those who led the fight for freedom and democracy.  (Applause.)   

     And I do this work joyfully, because I know how big an impact young people can and must make on our world.  And I believe it is so important for them to know that there are so many of us here in America who not only care about them, but who believe and will invest in their future.

     But, in the end, no matter the issue — whether you’re organizing a campaign for health care, or workplace fairness, whether you’re putting more women on the federal bench — the truth is so many of these issues may not be resolved in our lifetime. 

     And we can never forget that it’s the next generation that will carry these issues forward.  It will be our sons and our daughters, our grandchildren attending this luncheon in 20 or 30 years.  Yeah, kind of scary.  (Laughter.)  But they’re ready.  They’ll be the ones fighting for every last penny in the pay disparity.  They’ll be the ones who sit down in their office with some next-generation iPad to write tomorrow’s landmark legislative victories.  They’re going to be the ones to do it. 

     So it is up to us to inspire them, to engage them, to make them believe that they have the power and the ability to get this done.  It is up to us to reach back and keep pulling and pulling and pulling more people up, so that we make way for the next leaders and they can keep this country moving forward. 

     And I know we’re up to it, particularly the folks in this room.  You all have shown that kind of leadership and passion throughout this organization’s history.  Every time a challenge has come your way, you’ve delivered.  It’s been a marvel to watch.  Every time there was a need, you’ve filled it.  And I know that as long as we’ve got you, as long as we keep making progress on today’s issues and then building tomorrow’s leaders, then we will achieve the progress we seek.  We will do it.  

     So I want to thank you for all of your work, because it has inspired me.  It keeps me going.  Thank you — and for all that you’ll do in the years and decades ahead not just for women, not just for families, but for our country and for our world.  Congratulations.  Take care and let’s get to work.  (Applause.)  


1:44 P.M. EDT