First Lady Michelle Obama created buzz with her remark at the recent Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders that "the blood of Africa runs through my veins." But later in her speech, she had some observations about the country of her birth as well. Mrs. Obama cited the progress made by and for women in the United States, particularly over the last century:
A century ago, women in America weren’t allowed to vote. Decades ago, it was perfectly legal for employers to refuse to hire women. Domestic violence was viewed not as a crime, but as a private family matter between a man and his wife.
But in each generation, people of conscience stood up and rejected these unjust practices. They chained themselves to the White House gates, waged hunger strikes in prison to win the right to vote. They took their bosses to court. They spoke out about rape and fought to prosecute rapists, despite the stigma and shame. They left their abusive husbands, even when that meant winding up on the streets with their children. (Applause.)
And today in America, we see the results of those hard-fought battles: 60 percent of college students today are women. Women are now more than half the workforce. And in recent decades, women’s employment has added nearly $2 trillion to the U.S. economy -– yes, trillion. (Applause.)
However, in spite of the advances, the first lady said that the United States has not achieved "anywhere near full" equality for women in a number of areas:
Now, are we anywhere near full economic, political, and domestic equality in the United States? Absolutely not. We still struggle every day with serious issues like violence against women, unequal pay. Women are still woefully underrepresented in our government and in the senior ranks of our corporations.
Mrs. Obama has been a target of criticism since February 2008 for statements that seem to disparage America when she said twice on the campaign trail, "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country."
At the Mandela summit, Mrs. Obama went on to say that credit for the progress made in the United States for women has not simply been due to brave women, but to "brave men" as well:
But slowly, generation after generation, we’ve been moving in the right direction because of brave individuals who were willing to risk their jobs, their reputations, and even their lives to achieve equality. And it wasn’t just brave women who made these sacrifices. It was also brave men, too -- (applause) -- men who hired women, men who passed laws to empower women, men who prosecuted other men who abused women.
As first lady, Mrs. Obama has done more than her share to give women opportunities to advance. Her White House staff is overwhelmingly composed of women, although on average the few men on her staff are paid more.