Fresh off endorsing a woman to succeed him in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama stood before 5,000 convened as part of a White House summit on women and delivered his most robustly feminist speech yet.
"I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago," Obama told the advocates. "But this is what a feminist looks like."
While he said little about the presidential election, Obama’s words implicitly drew a contrast between the majority-female, diverse Democratic coalition and the party of Trump.
"You hear politicians peddle the fiction that blocking immigrants or cutting off trade or 'big government' are all to blame" for economic hardship, Obama said. "But we know what the causes are: The rise of global competition, the weakening of the labor movement and participation in unions, the automation of more jobs, the race of technology — all these trends have the potential of leaving workers behind. They let a few at the top do even better. And we see some of those divisions not just between groups, but within groups. There are women who have never had more opportunity, but there are a lot of women who are still stuck in the toughest of economic circumstances."
Obama said that his daughter Malia’s high school graduation last week — here, he recreated a half-suppressed whimper — led him to reflect on "this extraordinary time for women in America."
Charting the progress of women since his birth, from access to contraception to women in space, Obama said, "We have to celebrate it, but we have to remember that progress is not inevitable. It’s the result of slow, tireless, often frustrating and unheralded work."
As for that work, Obama said, “It would help if we had more women in the corner suite." He added, laughing pointedly, "I have a corner suite. Just making that connection for you.”
Obama acknowledged that the economy had not caught up to changing family life. "Those days when the average family was a dad who went to work every day and a mom who stayed at home and did all the unpaid labor — that’s not what our economy looks like anymore," he said. "Households and work arrangement come in all shapes and all combinations and yet, our workplace policies still look like they’re straight out of Mad Men.”
Policies that would address such obstacles, from paid sick leave to equal pay protections, have stalled in Congress, but Obama has, near the end of his term, issued related executive orders that cover federal employees, and to some extent federal contractors.
Dubbed the United State of Women, the day also featured the voices of activists, celebrities and government officials on fighting violence against women, increasing access to healthcare and economic opportunity and improving educational outcomes. Female mariachi artists and drummers serenaded attendees, and two very impressive 11-year-old girls took the stage to put the adults to shame.
A meandering speech by Vice President Joe Biden in the morning largely focused on his own role writing the Violence Against Women Act and told stories, some brutally specific, of women confiding their stories of violence to him and thanking him.
Several attendees in the Walter E. Washington Convention hall rolled their eyes, especially when the length of Biden's near hour long speech threw the schedule off-kilter and seemed to truncate the mostly female panelists’ remarks.
Even as the panels stretched further into the evening, people stuck around for a rare and candid chat between Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Michelle Obama. Oprah repeatedly asked a relaxed Obama how she had contended with the doubters and the haters since she moved into the White House.
"When you hear the smack talking... It's easy to brush that off because I know who I am," Michelle Obama said.
Asked by Oprah what the men watching should do, leaving that day, the first lady was succinct: "Be better."