It was refreshing to see First Ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush share a stage and talk about the roles of women as part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week.
While their politics may be different and we may not always agree with their positions or the causes they choose to fight for, they are two leading women in the world who wield tremendous star, political, and social power themselves.
And, while U.S. women enjoy unprecedented opportunities, women in Africa often have an uphill battle because they are women. So it was a good example Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush set by teaming up for a bipartisan discussion of the role of women in the world.
The Washington Post provides a snapshot of their conversation:
“Until we prioritize our girls and understand that they are as important and their education is as important as the education of our sons, then we will have lots of work to do,” Obama said. Referring to advice she gave a group of young men from Africa recently, she said: “One of the things I asked the young men is that you have to be introspective and ask yourselves whether you truly believe that women can be your equal.”
Bush agreed, thinking back to her days advocating for women in Afghanistan.
“Mrs. Obama is right — in fact, one person said to me one time, why are you working with women, it’s men who have the problem,” she said to laughter.
Obama has spent her summer speaking to students and advocating for issues, such as ending homelessness among veterans, while also giving speeches that raise money for Democratic candidates and sharing her views on women’s empowerment.
Bush is leading a robust post-White House life, helping to build the George W. Bush Presidential Center and developing a first ladies initiative there that aims to help women harness the power of the role.
One comment was troubling though. FLOTUS made a joke that smacked of old-school feminism/gender politics. FLOTUS joked that women are smarter than men and from the headlines that have come out on the event that has overshadowed their entire conversation.
Here’s what she said:
“Every time I meet a child I think, who knows what’s going on in her life, whether she was just bullied or whether she had a bad day at school or whether she lost a parent — that interaction that we have with that individual, that child for that moment, could change their life,” she said. “So we can’t waste this spotlight. It is temporary and life is short, and change is needed. And women are smarter than men.”
Mrs. Obama’s joke drew laughter and applause from the crowd. She then told the men in the audience they “can’t complain, because you’re outnumbered today.”
Is that the right kind of tone to strike? That sounds closer to the militant language sixties feminists might have used to bludgeon society into denigrating men. However, is that true or is that just propaganda? How do men receive those kinds of statements?
More fundamentally, does it oversimplify the differing competencies that men and women exhibit? Equal doesn’t mean the same.
Making comments –even jokingly- that suggest women are smarter does no more to bring us together than saying blacks are smarter than whites in race relations. This kind of language draws a wedge between the sexes and can spur resentment on the part of those who should be allies in this fight -especially in the international arena where women in other countries often face tremendous difficulties merely because of their gender.