Michelle Obama’s singular mission last night was to convince Americans that she and the president deeply understand the real challenges facing Americans today, and she aced it. With a relaxed grace that wowed the convention hall, she spoke in personal terms of a common American experience and voiced a deep belief that a shared connection allows her husband to fight for all of us, but especially the women. Against a backdrop of the GOP assault on women’s rights and an economic recession disproportionately affecting women, her words offered a handhold for the slipping hope that ran rampant just four years ago.
While she never mentioned either Romney by name, the obvious juxtaposition of the couples’ lives and core beliefs was woven silently into anecdotes and stated principles throughout the speech. The emotion in her voice was audible as Michelle recounted watching her father struggle to dress himself every morning for his physically demanding job at the water plant. The family needed the money despite his progressive multiple sclerosis. The painted image automatically conjured up a comparison with Ann Romney’s idyllic upbringing as the privileged daughter of a small town mayor.
When Michelle relayed the constant worry of her parents as they scraped and sacrified to afford the small portion of college tuition not covered by federal grants and loans, we were remided of Ann Romney’s description of how tough it was to live off of Mitt’s stock portfolio while they were newleyweds in college. Working moms around the country chuckled with camaraderie when Michelle said date night for her and Barack as parents was dinner or a movie because “as an exhausted mom, I couldn’t stay awake for both.” Ann Romney’s full-time mothering was no doubt exhausting, they must have been silently musing, but since she didn’t have to juggle a job as well, she might have gotten both dinner and a movie. And in a final blow, Michelle deftly but gently cut the heart out of of the GOP narrative and Mitt Romney’s top selling point when she said softly that for Barack “success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
While Michelle was the main event, the entire evening was a veritable paean to the women voters this campaign needs to win. If the convention stage was the floor of the House, what are commonly referred to as “women’s issues” would be front and center in a Democratic offensive to rebuild the middle class and own the principles of equality and justice.
With female leaders of labor, government and health advocacy speaking all night long, the crowd was primed as the evening wore on. The men also paid homage to the women who got them to the stage, and pledged to fight for a better future for everyone’s daughters. Julian Castro, the young mayor from San Antonio, delivered a standout performance based largely on his life story of being raised by his mother and grandmother. It was a moving nod to the immigrant experience being made possible by strong women.
By the time Lilly Ledbetter took the stage, the crowd erupted in a frenzy something like teenage fans at a Jonas Brothers concert. The notorious blond grandmother from Alabama sued all the way to the Supreme Court after discovering male counterparts at her tire factory earned more than she did. Smart and sassy, Ledbetter summed up the real-life impact of a twenty-three cent pay gap: the ability to take the family to the occasional movie and still have pennies left over for the college savings account. Ledbetter scored one of the best responses of the night when she mused: “Maybe twenty-three cents doesn’t sound like much for someone with a Swiss Bank account….”
Women across the board say that economic concerns are top of list to get their vote, but nine out of ten say it is critical a candidate understand women. “Understanding women,” I heard consistently as I wandered the hall, means not making abortion and jobs separate issues. With two income households a necessity and reproductive health central to economic security, convention promises will remain just those until—in the words of one older male delegate from New Hampshire—“we stop talking about these as women’s issues. They are economic issues and family issues.”
The women at the convention are fiercely defensive of their president. One Virginia delegate told me with an evangelical zeal that “people forget the patient was bleeding. Our country was on the ER table and losing life fast. Now, the bleeding has stopped and the healing can begin.” Women effortlessly list Obama’s accomplishments on healthcare, on choice, on financial reform. They sing his praises as a father and a husband. And they organize like people with the threat of a Romney/Ryan presidency hanging over their heads.
But even on this night of homage to women, the wage gap wasn’t the only one on display. The women’s Congressional delegation lined up behind Nancy Peolsi as she spoke from the stage appeared appallingly sparse. Though not every member was meant to be accounted for, the image is a graphic reminder that women still only make up 17 percent of federal elected positions. Those numbers qualifies the United States for a spot at seventy-third place in the world for female representation in government, tied with Turkmenistan. A delegate from Colorado told me conspiratorially that there’s always a fight with local party leaders to get money to women candidates in enough time to make a difference in viability.
While the Ledbetter Act has become the president’s signature legislation with women, there is widespread frustration that the Paycheck Fairness Act still languishes in Congress, even if most of that rancor is reserved for the GOP. And one African-American delegate from Nevada fervently wished aloud that the president and Democrats would just speak up about the fact that the wage gap is far higher for women of color than white women. “Painting over the race part of inequality doesn’t help,” she said of her work to get other women of color involved in the campaign.
Kathleen Sebelius’s concise summation of the real time impact on women’s lives from Obamacare was impressive in content and delivery. But no speech provided a genuine analysis of why we are losing substantial ground on reproductive choice, most of them instead settling for the easy win against the GOP villain. Governor Deval Patrick’s rousing line about Democrats’ much-needed pivot to offense requiring more spine met with genuine, if surprised, appreciation. But with no stated solutions on how to stop the war on women other than to re-elect Obama, that offensive still looks daunting. Women haven’t forgotten that the Stupak amendment restricting federal funds from going towards abortion happened on the Democrats’ watch. “It’s not a matter of blame,” one woman from Illinois explained, “it’s a matter of strategy.”
But none of that was top of mind tonight as Michelle took the stage. She connected beautifully with almost every woman in the room while she spoke of her daughters, her concern for their future and her primary role as Mom-in-Chief. The distance yet to travel was most evident in what she didn’t say. Her own success as a lawyer, a dean at the University of Chicago and a hospital administrator was notable in its absence. Her impressive professional biography would have to wait another cycle for the political culture to catch up with reality. Meanwhile, she more than fulfilled her core job as first lady, which is to remind us of her husband’s humanity, his dedication and her abiding belief in his ability to continue to lead this country forward. And we believe her. Because while Ann Romney shouted out last week in Tampa, “I love you women,” Michelle Obama is one of us women.