Michelle Obama’s memoir is making headlines for revelations about her infertility and unfiltered comments about Donald Trump. But I see an overarching theme that will endure long after the headlines have faded: the struggle of a woman to find her voice.
Becoming details Obama’s remarkable journey from a cautious, self-conscious girl from working-class Chicago to one of the most admired women in the world. But even more remarkable and promising is the way her journey is mirrored in the rising voice of women, a movement that‘s transforming our national discourse.
Across the country, in places where male voices have historically dominated — on the campaign trail, in the workplace, in houses of worship — women are using their voices more loudly, more frankly, and more forcefully than ever.
When a record-breaking number of women ran for office in the midterms, many used their campaign speeches and ads to break free of the old strictures on what was considered acceptable for public discourse.
One example: the demise of “the mommy penalty.” Historically voters have been skeptical of female candidates with young children on the grounds that it’s incompatible with representing constituent. But in the recent election, many women running for office upended the narrative by showing off their children.
Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Kelda Roys ran a campaign ad showing herself breast feeding. Roys was building on her reputation as an effective state legislator who helped ban the chemical Bisphenol A from baby bottles and sippy cups.
Kyrsten Sinema, elected to the US Senate from Arizona, shared her experiences being bullied and homeless during her childhood. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams spoke about about her $200,000 debt and her brother’s incarceration on drug charges. US Representative-elect Ayanna Presley of Massachusetts talked about surviving sexual assault.
Note that these women aren’t talking about their experiences to be confessional. They’re using their personal experiences to inform the policies they support.
Christine Jahnke, author of The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out: How to Use Your Voice to Drive Change, calls these women “360 degree candidates” — because they bring their whole selves to the role.
Doing this is harder than it may seem. One through line in Michelle Obama’s memoir is how she struggled to speak with confidence and authenticity.
She writes that in the early days of her husband’s presidential campaign, she felt uncertain about her public speaking role. “I was given no script, no talking points, no advice. I figured I’d just work it out for myself.”
She describes her anguish when a line she tossed out while campaigning in Milwaukee — “… let me tell you something, for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country” — became fodder for conservative radio and television talk shows.
But she grew into the role, establishing a strict code for herself when speaking publicly in the political sphere: “to only say what I absolutely believed and what I absolutely felt.” The deeper she got into the experience of being First Lady, the more securely she occupied her position.
Eventually she felt comfortable speaking consistently and authentically in her own voice to college graduates, the homeless, hip-hop stars, and massive, prime-time audiences.
As time went on, Obama began to feel an urgency about not wasting the opportunity she’d been given to speak out — and she did, with lasting resonance.
Stumping for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016, she wanted to deliver the message that “words matter.” She will forever be remembered for her eloquent call that night for civility in public discourse: “When they go low, we go high.”
Obama has only just begun to unmuzzle her voice, and she makes it clear she’s got a lot more to say.
As she promotes her book and speaks to packed arenas around the country, here’s hoping she’ll inspire even more women to step up, speak up, and cede the stage to no one in pursuit of their cause.
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