REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
AT THE WOMEN’S CONFERENCE
WITH CALIFORNIA FIRST LADY MARIA SHRIVER
10:02 A.M. PDT
MRS. OBAMA: Wow, there’s a lot of women in this room. (Laughter.) It’s very good, very good. Well, thank you all so much. And thank you, Maria, for that right on point introduction. Thank you for your moving words today, and thank you for your courage and your candor in sharing your own experiences and inspiring so many other women, not just here in California but across the country.
Maria has been a great friend to me, and even if she was a little hesitant about the job at first, she has been a tremendous example of what a First Lady can and should be. (Applause.) She has shown us all the impact you can have when you live your life with spirit, and determination, and a singular focus on doing good in the world. So let us give Maria another rousing round of applause. (Applause.)
So, the last time I was here was a few years ago, when I was on a panel with four other wives of presidential candidates. And I have to tell you that it was truly one of the highlights of my time on the campaign trail, because amidst all the noise and the back-and-forth of a presidential election, this conference gave us the chance to step back, and to breathe, and actually have a conversation; to talk not just about politics, or what our husbands thought about this or that issue, but about the experience we were sharing, the challenges we faced and the things we were passionate about as wives, as mothers, and most importantly as women.
That is the beauty of this conference –- the space it provides for all of us as women to just be ourselves, let it hang loose a little bit, and speak honestly and openly about the issues that matter most to us.
And I’d like to do that once again today. I’d like to speak today about an issue that I care deeply about, and talk with you about how I came to this issue, and why it matters so much to me, and why I think it should matter to all women and all Americans.
It started a few years ago, in the months after my husband had begun his presidential campaign. Now, it had taken a little convincing to persuade me that this whole running-for-President thing was a good idea. And by “a little” convincing, I mean it was a lot of convincing, because we had two very young daughters at home, I had a full-time job that I loved, and I worried about what it would mean for our family. So it took me a while to get out of my own head, and to set aside my own fears and self interest, and focus on all the good that I believed a man like my husband could do as President.
But even once I was on board — (applause) — well, thank you for that — (applause) — but even once I was on board, I was reluctant to go out on the campaign trail myself. I didn’t like the idea of leaving my girls for days on end. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience on the stump. And to tell you the truth, I was scared. I was worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I was nervous that someone might ask a question that I didn’t know the answer to. And I have a tendency to do that thing a lot of women do, where you get 99 things right, but then you stress and beat yourself up over the one thing you mess up. (Laughter.) I know that sounds familiar in this room. (Laughter and applause.)
So I decided that I would focus on what I knew.
And as a working mom, I thought I knew a thing or two about the challenge of balancing a fulltime job and the round-the-clock needs of my family, juggling the recital and the conference calls, making the endless to-do lists that I never got through and often lost, feeling like I was falling short both at work and at home.
I also knew that I wasn’t alone — that every singe woman I knew, regardless of race, education, geographic location, income, we were all struggling to keep it together. And I believed that the voices of working women needed to be at the heart of creating any comprehensive agenda to move this country forward.
So I decided to start by meeting with groups of working women to listen to their concerns and talk with them about how I thought my husband could help.
So, of course, before I went out, I did my homework. I read my briefing books from cover to cover. I thought about all the issues that might come up. I thought about the answers to every question that I could imagine. And for the most part, I was prepared. For the most part, in the stories of the women I met, I recognized my own story.
But there was one group of women whose stories were new to me — and whose questions I often didn’t have answers to. I met them in every corner of this country, in every community — big cities, suburbs, and small towns. They were military spouses –- mainly women, but a few good men -– whose spouses were serving our country, putting their lives on the line to keep us safe.
And let me tell you, their stories took my breath away. These women, they told me about husbands who were on their third, or fourth, fifth deployment, away from home six, 12, 15 months at a time. They talked about missing birthdays and anniversaries, and about running a household all alone while trying to hide their worries from their spouses. They told me about answering all those questions from their kids about when daddy is coming home.
And some of these women were active duty military themselves, including some who were single moms. See, and these women worried about what would happen to their kids if both they and their husbands were deployed at the same time.
They talked about what it means to move every couple of years –- often far from their extended families.
They talked about having to find a new pediatrician, new childcare, new carpool, new church, a whole new life. They talked about helping their kids adjust to their seventh, eighth, ninth new school, and if their child had a special need, trying to find a school that would accommodate that child.
One woman I met was desperate to adopt a child. But she and her husband kept having to move before the state agency processed their forms. So they’d have to start the process all over again in a new state.
These women told me about how hard it is to find a job in a new town where you have no connections. How difficult it is to ace a job interview with an employer who’s reluctant to hire someone who might have to pick up and move in a couple of years. How frustrating –- and expensive –- it is to get new professional license or certification, as a teacher, social worker, real estate broker, every time you move.
Believe it or not, these women are out there paying for three or four different bar exams so that they can practice law in each new state where they move. And personally, if that were me, I’d have given up after the first or second time. (Laughter.)
And many of these women are just starting out. They’re still trying to complete their own educations. And it’s hard to do that when their credits don’t always transfer from school to school, or the nearest university doesn’t offer that program that they want or need, or they don’t qualify for in-state tuition and just can’t afford it.
Many of these women were younger than I was.
They had far less support and far fewer resources than I ever had. And every day, they were confronting challenges that I could barely even imagine.
So put yourself in their shoes for a minute. Ask yourself: How do I keep fears and anxieties from your kids when, as one mother wrote me, and this is a quote, “…a good day is when a military chaplain doesn’t knock on my door”? What do you say at Christmas, when the only gift your little girl asks for is for her father to come home? And when he does come home, are you prepared for those months of readjustment –- re-negotiating roles, and balancing responsibilities, rekindling your relationship when, in so many ways, both of you have changed? And what if he comes home wounded? Are you ready to be a round-the-clock caregiver, trying to make that person you love whole again?
So here I was, someone who’d always thought of myself as knowledgeable about women’s issues. I’d been reading about, thinking about, talking about, and living these issues my entire life, and here was one group of women for whom these issues were magnified ten-fold, a hundred-fold – and I had no idea.
I mean, you want to talk about equal pay? According to one report, military spouses make an average of $10,500 less a year than civilians, and there’s an even larger pay gap between college educated military and civilian spouses.
You want to talk about balancing work and family? Well, try doing that when your partner has an intense, dangerous, round-the-clock job, and that job is located halfway around the world.
You want to talk about confronting glass ceilings and succeeding in the professional world? Try doing that when you don’t live anywhere long enough to get promoted and gain seniority at your job.
And as I talked with these women, and learned more about their lives, I kept asking myself, how is it possible that I and so many other Americans know so little about the challenges they face?
I mean, like all Americans, I have always been awed by our men and women in uniform. I have always been inspired by the sacrifices they make for our country. So how is it that so many of us know so little about the sacrifices their families make?
Well, it turns out that one of the primary reasons is that military families simply don’t complain. They are strong and resilient and independent. They’re proud of their service to their country, and they’re more than willing to make the sacrifices that come with it. So no matter how tough it gets, because they’re so capable, they manage to keep everything together.
So many of us never hear about the challenges they’re facing. We never get that glimpse inside their lives. And so we think everything is fine. And as a result, too many military families feel invisible to their fellow Americans.
In one recent survey, more than half of military spouses –- more than half -– said they felt like their communities didn’t really support them. And that’s just unacceptable. Their loved ones protect every single one of us. Their service keeps our entire country safe. So their sacrifice should be our sacrifice. Supporting them is our solemn obligation as a grateful nation. (Applause.)
I will never forget what one of these women said to me during the campaign. She said, simply, and this is a quote, “I just want to make sure that military spouses are always heard, that we have a voice…” And I promised myself back then if people gave my husband the privilege of serving this country, I would do everything I could to be that voice.
And I got very lucky when my husband picked his running mate, because with Joe Biden came Jill Biden, who is a Blue Star Mom, and someone who knows a thing or two about the challenges facing military families. (Applause.) She is a tireless advocate for National Guard and Reserve families, and she has been a phenomenal partner in this work.
And as Jill and I have visited with military families across the country, it has become very clear that our work isn’t just about supporting them. It’s also about all they have to offer us. It’s about all they have to contribute to our workplaces and our communities.
I mean, the fact is that military spouses are some of the most talented, hard-working, public-spirited people I have ever met.
You want to meet someone who can multitask and think outside the box? Someone with a strong work ethic and a rock-solid sense of responsibility? Someone who can adapt to changing circumstances and work well in all kinds of situations with people? Well, that’s a pretty good description of your average military spouse.
And they haven’t just picked up skills from managing a military lifestyle. Believe it or not, on top of all their other responsibilities, military spouses also put in countless hours volunteering, both on and off-base. In a recent survey, 68 percent of military family members reported volunteering in the past year. That’s compared to just 27 percent of the general population.
And much of this work goes far beyond your typical volunteer efforts.
For example, you’ve all heard of Toys for Tots, right? Well, this program was actually founded by and run by the Marine Corps Reserve. Now, this is a massive, nationwide effort. In 2009, it was active in 691 communities in all 50 states, distributing more than 16 million toys to more than 7 million children. So this is a serious organizational challenge; one that military spouses play a major role in managing.
And then there are all these programs that most folks haven’t even heard about. How many of you know what a Family Readiness Group is, or an FRG? (Applause.) These are support organizations run by military spouses that serve hundreds of families at a time.
And here’s what an average day might look like for a spouse who’s serving as an FRG leader. She might spend her morning working on a communications strategy –- coordinating the unit’s website, newsletter, Facebook page. Over lunch, she might review the FRG’s budget, craft a spending plan for the coming year. In the afternoon, she’s going to meet with healthcare representatives to learn about new counseling resources, or maybe a team of volunteers to coordinate upcoming events. The evening might bring news that the deployed unit has sustained a casualty. So she’ll work late into the night, rounding up support for the affected family, and notifying other members about what happened.
Now, if she were doing this same kind of work at a company, she’d probably be a senior executive, maybe even a COO or a CEO. You see, that’s the level of talent that we’re talking about here.
So the question today is, how do we give these women -– and our male military spouses as well –- the chances they deserve to use their skills, and the support they need to juggle their responsibilities?
And there’s a reason I’m asking these questions here in this room filled with thousands of powerful, passionate, and compassionate women. And that’s because as women, I know that we all can relate to everything I’ve described today. We get it.
While most of us don’t experience these struggles to the same degree as military spouses, that feeling of being pulled in all directions, that nagging sense that you’re falling short both at work and at home, that tendency to worry about, and care for, everyone but yourself -– these things are universal.
And I’m reminded today of something that one military wife said during a discussion that we had down in Kentucky. When one of her fellow spouses was speaking, and got choked up for a minute, this woman jumped in and said, and this is a quote: “I don’t know this woman…I didn’t meet her before today…but when she leaves here, she will have my number. And she will be able to call me anytime…She’s got the support of this friend right here.”
You see, this is what we do for each other as women. It is what we do for our sisters and our girlfriends, for our mothers and our daughters. (Applause.) We show up. We show up at the door with some food. We show up at the door with some chocolate. And if things are really bad, we show up at the door with a bottle of wine, right? (Laughter and applause.) We take that shift in the carpool. We say, hey, send the kids over to my house right now. I’ll take them off your hands for a day, a night, a weekend, whatever you need.
So we, as women, we know how to reach out. We know how to support each other. And the question is, what can we as women do to support our military spouses? How can we as a nation give back to these families who’ve given so much?
As President, my husband has been working hard to strengthen support programs and counseling services and to increase funds for housing, and childcare, career development. He’s extended the Family and Medical Leave Act so more military families and caregivers can benefit from that. (Applause.) And we’re working with states to streamline requirements so that spouses don’t have to reapply for professional credentials and take new tests every time they move. (Applause.) Simple things. So government is doing a lot of important work on these issues.
But the truth is that there is so much more that each of us can do –- and there’s so much more that each of us should do -– right in our own communities, because it’s not enough to be proud. It’s not enough just to feel grateful. It’s time for each of us to act. It’s time for each of us to be that architect of change for these families in whatever way we can.
And you don’t have to know much about the military to help. You can help just by doing whatever it is you do best.
Are you a teacher, a school administrator, a member of the PTA? How about seeing what your school can do to better support military kids right in your own community?
Are you a lawyer, an accountant, maybe a counselor? How about offering your services pro bono to some military families in your area?
Do you own a small business or do Human Resources for a large one? How about making an effort to hire more military spouses, and making your workplace more military-spouse friendly?
Do you have a few hours in your week to volunteer? How about getting online and going to serve.gov to find out how you can serve military families in your own area?
The possibilities are endless. Things like this are the least we can do, considering everything that these women –- and men –- are doing for us. Their strength, and determination, and service, it inspires me every single day.
I’m inspired by the woman who told me about how much she missed her husband, but then said, simply: “…it’s not easy, we all put on our pretty clothes and our bold face and we stand up and we hold our head up high. We are the Army wives,” she said. “We are the ones who hold the fort down while they’re gone…”
I’m inspired by women like Connie Henline who stayed at the bedside of her husband for months after he was wounded in Iraq. And I’m inspired by their daughter, Brittany, who went from being an ordinary 15 year-old to acting as a mom for her younger siblings –- doing the errands, cooking meals, supervising homework while her mother was by her father’s bedside. When asked how someone so young could take on so much responsibility, she responded, “They needed me, and my priorities changed. My family came first.”
And I’m inspired by Gold Star Wives like Autumn Letendre. Autumn’s husband was killed in Iraq back in 2006. And in the years since, she’s become a passionate advocate for military families –- speaking across the country, attending military funerals to comfort loved ones, working to ensure that her husband’s memory lives on for her young son. And in a letter that she sent to military families, she wrote, “I may have lost the love of my life, but I have gained a life and a story that few in this great country have.”
You see, these women –- and men –- they are heroes. And it’s time that we recognize that the challenges they face and the obstacles they overcome and the contributions they make, all of that isn’t just a military issue. It’s an American issue. And more importantly, it’s a women’s issue. It is an issue that I believe should be on the agenda of every women’s conference –- right up there with equal pay, right up there with work-family balance, right up there with breaking the glass ceiling. (Applause.)
We have to talk about this. Their needs, and their concerns, should be on the agenda of every woman and every American, because they represent the very best this country has to offer. And it’s time that each of us did our part to give them the support they need, the recognition they deserve, and the gratitude they’ve earned. So I look forward to working with all of you in some way, shape or form to make that happen in the months and years ahead. We have a lot of work to do, but if we all work together as we know how, we can ensure that our military spouses always have a voice in this country.
So thank you all. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for your prayers and your support. God bless you all. Take care. (Applause.)