Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady During the Remarkable Women in DC Dinner

March 30, 2011

MRS. OBAMA: Wow. Hi, everybody. (Applause.) Yes!

Please, you all, sit down. Welcome, welcome to the White House. Let me tell you, this -- we have a lot of staff. You guys see them walking around, but everyone is always excited about this night. Everybody says this is the best night at the White House. And we do a lot of stuff at the White House, so that's pretty big.

So we're so excited to have you here. I'm thrilled to be here with all of these remarkable women and all of you remarkable young women from schools around the D.C. area. I hope you guys had a good time, or are having a good time. Everybody looks so good. (Laughter.) You guys look great.

I want to start by thanking a few people. I want to think Ali, first of all, for being here, and being our emcee tonight, for that wonderful introduction. (Applause.) I will share this with you. When I told my husband that -- and I just told her this -- that Ali was going to be the emcee, he was like, huh, Ali is pretty funny, but sometimes she can be a little inappropriate. (Laughter.) So I guaranteed her -- him that she'd be fine and I think so far so good. There you go. (Laughter.) The night is not over yet, but we'll wait until the press leaves. (Laughter.) But thank you so much, and thanks for spending the day with some of the kids.

I also want to recognize Secretary Sebelius, Kathleen Sebelius. Kathleen, where are you? Is she here? There you are. (Applause.)

Secretary Hilda Solis is here. Hilda, where are you? There you are. There you are. (Applause.)

And I also want to recognize and have all of the other outstanding women who are involved in this administration -- I think Valerie is here, Tina, Kristina -- stand up, you guys, so that people know who's here from the administration, all over the place. (Applause.) And Jocelyn. (Applause.) Hey, you guys, thanks for doing this. Everybody is getting a free meal, so they're happy to be here. (Laughter.)

I also want to acknowledge Abbe Raven, who's the president and CEO of A&E Television Networks, which owns Lifetime Networks. Abbe, where are you, Abbe? There you are. Here you are, right there. (Applause.)

Lifetime is going to be launching a public service campaign and hosting events all across the country to highlight the importance of mentoring young people and particularly young women, so this is huge. They jumped in this feet first, no hesitation, and we're just grateful for what you're willing to do. Elevating this through Lifetime is going to be a terrific boost for young women all across the country, so thank you so much for being here, and thank you for your work. (Applause.)

And of course I very much want to thank all of our mentors who are here, some pretty amazing women. And again I'm going to ask you guys -- you guys know who's at your table, but all of our mentors -- I see Lisa, Dominique, Judith -- everybody stand up so that people know who's here. Nancy is here, Michelle. (Applause.) Thank you, guys.

You know, if you see a lot of men hovering who work here -- everybody is trying to sneak down here and just -- even Barack was like, you need me to stop through and say a few words? (Laughter.) I was like, no, it's okay, it's okay. (Laughter.)

But thank you all for taking the time to spend with the kids in the D.C. area. And several of you were here before. This isn't -- for many, it's the second year in a row that you've come to this large event. And as I've told them, once you're part of this administration, you get pulled in again and again. So some people are probably sick of coming to the White House because we ask them to come so often. But we're grateful to you all, very grateful, and I hope the afternoon in the schools was good, was fun. I know that my school was terrific -- great questions, real enthusiasm. It was terrific. But you guys, you young ladies here get the special treat of actually eating some food. (Laughter.) So, you know, we try to switch it off. I know some schools are competing -- who got a mentor to come to their school, and who got people invited here, so we try to switch it off, so don't rub it in, all right? (Laughter.)

But I know that this is an exciting evening, an exciting time to be here because there are so many of your heroes and role models here. I know it's true for me. And I look at people and I go, I love you! (Laughter.)

But these are women whose movies that you've watched, and whose songs that you sing -- Ledisi, you've gotten me through a many of a long road trip, thank you -- (laughter) -- and achievements that you've read about. And each of these women who are here -- these mentors -- has carved out her own extraordinary path in this world. And along the way, what I hope they share with you is that they've done some great things -- broken records and broken barriers and achieved success probably beyond many of their wildest dreams, right?

But all of you should know that these wonderful ladies are just as excited and maybe not -- maybe even more excited to be here with all of you tonight, as great as they are. We all take so much pride and excitement from being able to share our stories and talk to you and look you in the face and ask you questions and give you advice. So we're excited, too, right? (Applause.) We're very excited. (Applause.)

We're excited to get to know you. We want to hear about your hopes. We want to hear about your wildest dreams. And that's because so many of us see ourselves in you. And I say this -- I was in El Salvador, and I said the same thing to young people there, because it's true. When we are with young people, we see ourselves in you because it wasn't so long ago that all of us women were sitting right where you are tonight. Not in the White House. Probably none of us got to -- (laughter) -- I know I never -- I didn't -- until I lived here, I didn't get invited, I wasn't here. (Laughter.) But we were in the position that you all are in. We were once teenagers just like you, filled with our own aspirations and our own ambitions, but also filled with our own anxieties, and our own fears, and our own doubts. So we know what you're going through. My daughters don't believe that, but I do, I get it. (Laughter.) That's why I know when they're not telling the truth. I try to tell them I've been there. I tried to tell that lie before. Don't do it. (Laughter.)

These women here, all of us, we weren't born knowing the things that we know. We weren't born with silver spoons in our mouths. Many of us, we weren't born knowing how to play a concerto, or how to blast off to space -- you know, that's not stuff you just wake up knowing -- or how to run a major television network, or how to be an Air Force General. I know you didn't know that. (Laughter.) Or how to be a Cabinet Secretary. We didn't know any of that. And none of us here were handed anything. No one just handed Dominique her medals. No one just handed out a MacArthur Genius Award or an Oscar or a Grammy. All of these women have earned every single honor that they have. And they fought for many of the opportunities that they've experienced.

And I know that it's easy to lose sight of that fact once you've seen somebody succeed, right? Once you see somebody on TV, it looks like it's easy, right? But the truth is that we only really know many of these women after they have become famous, once they were on the news, and their names were in lights, and they had these wonderful fancy titles.

But what you don't always see is what it took for many of us, many of these women to get where they are today. You don't always see the thousands of hours that were spent studying, or practicing, or rehearsing, the years spent working for that promotion, the hammers used to break glass ceilings, the time spent going to audition after audition, lying awake at night doubting and worrying about whether you can do it and whether you can handle it once you do it.

The truth is, is that every single one of these remarkable women have had times in their lives where they've struggled. We've all struggled. They've had times when they felt overwhelmed, when they felt like they weren't good enough, when they thought about giving up on their own dreams.

Dominique, I know, in the days leading up to the first national championship competition, she was doubting. She talked about that time as being a time where she was losing her focus. And as she put it -- and this is her quote, she said: "I couldn't stay on the balance beam to save my life. My consistency and confidence were failing." See, I never knew that. You looked good.

DOMINIQUE: I faked it. I faked it.

MRS. OBAMA: Good faking. (Laughter.) We all fake it. (Laughter.)

And Nancy Brinker, you know, in 1980, as her sister, Susan G. Komen, was losing her life to breast cancer, and she made the promise that she'd do everything she could to find a cure, she faced some doubts and setbacks. Back then, newspapers were reluctant to even print the words "breast cancer." And Nancy started her fundraising efforts with nothing more than $200, and a list of names, and a broken typewriter. You were using a typewriter back then. (Laughter.) No computers. A group of friends who were willing to help.

And as I mentioned, Ledisi recorded her Lost & Found album, one of my favorites, I will say, but she was struggling during that time. A lot of folks were telling her that she didn't have the right look to be a star, right? They were saying that she needed to straighten her hair. Glad you didn't do it. (Laughter.) They were telling her that she needed to be thinner, that she needed to look different. And she began to think about quitting her singing career altogether.

And there are stories like these at every single table. But she didn't give up. Dominique, Nancy, none of us gave up. Instead, we just dug a little deeper. We pushed ourselves a little harder.

I told the students that I met with today at Ballou School the minute somebody questioned me, I took that as a challenge to prove them wrong. I was like, great, you can't -- don't think I can do it? I'm going to show you that I can. It was a challenge.

We all found the courage to believe in all that we had to offer. And what happened?

Well, Dominique went on not just to win that national championship; she went on to win more National Championship medals than any other athlete since 1963. Did you know that? (Applause.)

And Nancy didn't just surpass that initial $200 goal. She went on to raise $1.5 billion, funding all kinds of cancer research, and saving countless lives. (Applause.)

And then Ledisi, well, she didn't just record a good album, she recorded a great one. Her Lost & Found album earned her nominations for best R&B album and best new artist. And earlier this month, she performed right here in this room at our Motown Fest, and she'll be performing again tonight, yay, for us. (Laughter and applause.) Back then, as she was about to start singing, she thought to herself –- and these are your words, she said, "I never gave up on what I wanted to be. There were times when I wanted to, but I am so happy I didn't. I didn't give up on what I wanted to be, and here I am at the White House."

And one more embarrassing thing. (Laughter.) Ledisi, I understand that your birthday was Monday. So let's say happy birthday to Ledisi. Happy Birthday! (Applause.)

Any other birthdays we're missing? (Laughter.) Oh, we got a birthday -- happy birthday, sweetie. (Laughter.)

But in the end, Ledisi, Dominique, Nancy, and all of the other remarkable women in this room found their passion and they found their mission. They found what they were put on this Earth to do, and they realized that it didn't matter whether they got rich or famous doing it, whether they won any kind of award for it. What mattered was that they were doing what they loved doing. And that's key to you, young women. You want to be good at stuff, but you're good at stuff that you care about and you love. So think about that as you move forward. What mattered was that they were true to what was inside of them.

And their stories were possible because along the way, all of them –- every last one of them -– had someone in their lives who took the time to encourage them and to inspire them. None of us are here on our own -- someone who told them that they're special, that they're talented, that they have a place in this world and a whole lot to offer.

Now, for me, that was my parents. That was my mother. She's upstairs right now looking after Malia and Sasha. My parents did not have a whole lot of money. My parents didn't get to finish college themselves. But they were determined to see that me and my brother, that we got an outstanding education. And practically from the minute we were born, they had one simple message for us, and they drilled it in, and that was you can do it; that you are as smart as anyone, that you are just as capable, that you are worthy. That was what I heard my entire life.

So whenever anyone doubted me, as I told you, I took that as a challenge. And there are always people out there ready to doubt you. They doubt you even today. It doesn't end once you arrive. And the remarkable women at your table will tell you that. They're out there forever. The question is how do you react to those doubters. Do you turn that doubt into power of your own? And that's what everybody in this room has done, and that's what we expect you all to do.

Faith and love and hard work, those are the things that got us all through. And that's really all you need. You don't need money. You don't need connections. You just need to work really hard and push yourselves and push beyond your fear, because fear is all a part of it. We have all felt fear. We've all felt doubt. But the question is, do you let that stop you, or do you keep pushing through?

So tonight is a special night for you all to learn from these women around you. And as Ali pointed out, I want to urge you to take advantage of this time. Don't be shy tonight. Everybody here wants to be here, and they want to hear from you. They want you to ask questions. So don't hold back. Find out as much as you can from these women. Exchange numbers and cards. Don't ever be hesitant. These opportunities don't come along often. This may be your last time at the White House, but you might be here running it some day. So use this time with these women and take full advantage. We're very proud of all of you. Just know that.

And the one thing we ask of you when you're done here is -- and Ali mentioned this -- is that you now owe someone else. Your job here is to reach back and pull somebody else up. That's the price of admission tonight. It is never too soon for you all to start mentoring. All of you have younger girls in your lives, whether they're sisters, or brothers, or cousins. There are younger people in your lives who are looking up to you. You are today a role model. So start figuring out your plan for reaching back.

What are you going to do to make sure that someone else is following along in the path, even if that means sharing what you learned here with girls at your school who didn't get to come. Maybe it's figuring out a way to turn the conversations here into something bigger at your own school, maybe in your own communities, right, because one day you will be in a place like this, and it is only worth it if you're giving back, just like all of these women have done and will continue to do.

These folks aren't new to mentoring, and that's one of the reasons why they're a success, because they're reaching back all the time. And that's what we expect of you. All right?

So with that, we can eat. All right? You all, thank you so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady During the Remarkable Women in DC Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320527

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