Michelle Obama Doesn’t Believe in “Lean In” Feminism—What a Relief!

Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks onstage, wearing a white pantsuit
Former first lady Michelle Obama had some choice words about whether women can have it all. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

On Saturday, former first lady Michelle Obama took to a sold-out stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to promote Becoming, her new memoir. According to CNBC, the book is already the best-selling title of the year, with over 2 million copies sold within the first two weeks of the official release. In front of a rapt audience, Obama spoke about everything from the white flight that changed her neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago to the high school guidance counselor who told her that she wasn’t Princeton material. When the conversation turned to work-life balance, Obama didn’t mince words. “Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all. 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,” she said. “It’s not always enough to lean in because that shit doesn’t work.”

The audience of 19,000 immediately went wild at the sound of Obama letting loose a curse word, and while she quickly apologized for the slip of tongue, she doubled down on her criticism of the philosophy popularized by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in 2013. “I thought we were at home, y’all,” Obama said, according to Glamour. “I was getting real comfortable up in here. All right, I’m back now. Sometimes that stuff doesn’t work.” For the uninitiated, the “lean in” corporatized version of feminism suggests that women can have it all if they just act like men and assert themselves more aggressively in the workplace. It immediately drew criticism for seeming to blame women for male-dominated workplaces, and as of 2017, even Sandberg admits that women haven’t progressed much since she popularized the slogan.

But let’s return to Obama. When she stepped onto the national stage with her husband over a decade ago, she was touted as the titular modern woman. From her many career accomplishments to her beautiful family to her effortless style, Obama seemed to embody the idea that women could indeed have it all. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote for the Atlantic in 2012, Obama “started out with the same résumé as her husband, but has repeatedly made career decisions designed to let her do work she cared about and also be the kind of parent she wanted to be.” Even though the former first lady said her priority in the White House was to be “mom-in-chief” and shepherd her two daughters through the trials of growing up in front of the country, it was abundantly clear that, as Slaughter put it, “we should see her as a full-time career woman, but one who is taking a very visible investment interval.”

To women everywhere but specifically to black women like me, Obama’s public persona was a physical manifestation of the idea that no matter who didn’t believe in us, we could be smart, accomplished, ­and have the American dream of two kids and a dog to go along with it. But the reality she sketched out in both her remarks on Saturday and in her memoir speak to something much more important: that to be a thoroughly modern woman in America is to sacrifice.

It’s not uncommon in my circle of young black twenty-somethings to hold up Michelle and Barack’s marriage and their life together as a pinnacle of everything black love and ambition can accomplish. But Michelle’s frankness about the fact that her marriage is and never has been equal, that even she couldn’t excel in both her family life and her career at the same time, is a bracing bit of honesty about the very real limitations that women continue to face. And to some, that candor might scrub away the glamorous veneer of Obama’s life, exposing the realities of what it takes to juggle a career while sustaining a family with a man “whose intellectual growth and career would always take top priority,” as Christina Cauterucci wrote for Slate. To me, though, her candor only makes her all the more worthy of admiration.