Remarks by the First Lady at Women's Summit with Senator Harry Reid
11:47 A.M. PDT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you all so much. Thank you. That’s so sweet of you all -- please. Thank you so much.
First, let me begin by apologizing because I have a cold that I caught from this wonderful husband of mine. (Laughter.) So forgive my voice and my dryness and all that good stuff. And when I come around to shake hands, there will be somebody following with Purell. (Laughter.) Because you all have a lot of work to do and we can’t afford for any of you to be sick. (Laughter.)
But I am so thrilled to be here with all of you today. It is an honor to be a part of this summit and to be with so many wonderful women who are doing such amazing things here in Nevada and across the country. So I am thrilled -- and it’s really pretty nice here, too. (Laughter.)
I want to start by thanking a few people. First of all, Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa -- (applause) -- as well as State Treasurer Kate Marshall. (Applause.) And your Speaker of the Assembly Barbara Buckley. (Applause.) I want to thank them for their service, for their dedication to the people of this state. (Applause.) They are terrific. I got a chance to see them in the back.
And of course I have to thank one of my favorite people in the world -- Senator Reid. (Applause.) That was such a kind introduction and so generous, and all I can say is the same thing to him -- the same thing. Over the years, he has been a tireless advocate on behalf of women -- from helping pass health care reform, to supporting legislation to help prevent domestic violence, to helping women get equal pay for equal work. (Applause.) This state is -- and this country -- is lucky to have Harry Reid and Landra working on our behalf in Washington. And I want to thank him for everything -- both of them -- for their friendship, for their hard work, for their kindness. And let’s give him one more round of applause. (Applause.)
So I have to tell you, as much as I love living in Washington, it is always nice to get out of town every once in a while. (Laughter.) Especially when that means spending time with so many terrific women.
This summit is about bringing a diverse group of women together from different cities and different towns, different generations and backgrounds and walks of life, to talk about the issues that impact our lives as women and as Americans. And I think it’s especially fitting that we’re here in Nevada, a state that has always been home to so many strong, pioneering women.
As you all know, this state started out as a pretty forbidding place to live. It was part of the vast, unexplored West -- a land of sweeping deserts and dense wilderness and mountains so high that they’ll just take your breath away.
The nearest town was sometimes hundreds of miles away, but those who were brave enough to venture out here often had to struggle just to survive. Many of these women worked as prospectors and teachers and nurses and entrepreneurs. They ran cattle ranches and they worked long days in the mines and they started their own businesses, braving coyotes and rattlesnakes along the way. (Laughter.)
They were fiercely independent -- many of them with a wonderful stubborn streak a mile wide, and a strong sense of their place in the world. In fact, due to their tireless activism and leadership, these women here in Nevada gained themselves the right to vote in 1914 -- a full six years before the 19th Amendment was passed. And that’s pretty incredible. (Applause.)
So today, all of you are really heirs to that legacy of those tough, trailblazing, visionary women leaders, because you know the same thing that they knew: that in the end, the success of our communities, of our country, depends on the success of our women.
Now, obviously the challenges that we face today are a little different from the ones Nevadans faced 150 years ago. And I’m pretty sure none of you had to deal with an angry rattlesnake on your way here. (Laughter.) But the -- maybe you did. (Laughter.) But the problems are no less daunting today and no less important for the success of our nation. You know that. They’re issues that touch the lives of every single American.
And health care is a perfect example. Today, as you all know, women play a unique and increasingly significant role when it comes to keeping our families healthy.
Eight in 10 mothers report that they’re the ones responsible for choosing their children’s doctors, taking them to the appointments, managing follow-up care. And many women are making the same decisions for their spouses. And more than 10 percent of women in this country are currently taking care of a sick or elderly relative, often a parent, and making critical health care decisions for them as well.
But women aren’t just disproportionately affected because of the role we play in our family, we’re also affected because the jobs we do are more likely to be part-time or in small businesses, jobs that are -- less likely provide health insurance. Women are more likely to be denied coverage because of so called preexisting conditions like having a C-section or a previous pregnancy. In some cases, insurance plans don’t cover basis women’s health services like maternity care or preventative care for mammograms and Pap smears. And a recent study showed that 25-year-old women are charged up to 84 percent more than 25-year-old men for the same coverage. And at age 40, it’s 40 percent more -- for the exact same coverage.
Now, we know this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for women. It’s unacceptable for families. And it is unacceptable for our country. (Applause.)
And that's part of the reason why so many people fought so hard to pass health reform this year. Under the new law, starting this year, insurance companies will never again be allowed to deny children coverage because of preexisting conditions. (Applause.)
And in the coming years, no one with a preexisting condition will be banned from coverage. (Applause.) Insurance companies won’t be able to drop your coverage when you get sick, deny you the care you need because you’ve reached your annual or lifetime limit, or charge you more because you’re a woman.
And soon, if you don't have insurance or are looking for a more affordable option, you’ll be able to compare prices and purchase coverage through an insurance exchange, which is the same way members of Congress will get their insurance. (Applause.)
So we’ve done some great things, but as much progress as we’ve made, health care is really only one of the issues affecting women in this country, which brings us to a second challenge that we face, and that's securing an equal place in today’s economy.
Right now women make up nearly half of our workforce, and mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families. The majority of our students in our colleges are female. So we play an increasingly important role in setting the family’s budget, keeping food on the table. And across the country, women are breaking barriers in every field -- from science and business, to politics and the armed forces. So there’s no question that we have come a long way. But the fact remains that women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn.
And only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. And inequality, as many of you know, still exists in small and very stubborn ways in the lives of too many women. That’s why the first bill that my husband signed into law after taking office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. (Applause.)
As he put it, he said, here in America, “There are no second-class citizens in our workplaces,” and there is no reason why women shouldn’t get equal pay for equal work.
But as you all know, the success of women in the workplace isn’t just about a paycheck. It’s also about being able to juggle the needs of our families with the demands of our jobs. You all know that constant struggle to meet our responsibilities both as employees and breadwinners and as mothers and daughters and wives and everything else we do.
And as the mother of two beautiful girls -- and they're not little any more, they’re getting big. Malia is here, so don't be shocked. It’s still her. (Laughter.) This is an issue that is particularly close to my heart as I know it is for so many of you. Now, as I’ve said before, in our current life in the White House, we are incredibly blessed. We have more resources and support than I could have ever imagined that I would have, including a grandmother who lives upstairs. And let me tell you that is priceless. (Applause.)
But the truth is, we didn’t always live in the White House. And for many years, before coming to Washington, I was a working mom, doing my best to juggle soccer and ballet with meetings and conference calls. And when I was at work, I was feeling like I was shortchanging my kids. And when I was with my girls, I worried that I was falling behind at work. And there was just a lot of stress and a lot of guilt. And I was one of the lucky ones. I had understanding bosses and accommodating jobs.
In fact, I remember being on maternity leave with Sasha. She was about four months old, and I was still trying to figure out my next career move. And I got a call to do an interview for a senior position at the University of Chicago hospitals. So I frantically called every babysitter I knew and none of them were available. So guess what I did. (Laughter.) I packed her up -- still nursing -- put her in the stroller, and I took her with me. And I prayed that she wouldn’t need to do anything -- (laughter) -- while we were there, and that would automatically disqualify me. But, fortunately, she slept through the entire interview. And it was fortunate, because the man I was interviewing with, he and his wife had just had a baby. So he knew what I was going through, and I ended up getting the job.
But I know most folks are nowhere near as lucky as I was, especially in this economy. So many people struggle every day to find affordable childcare or to take time off to care for a child or an aging parent. Often they have to scramble to figure out that backup plan when the usual arrangements fall through. And that is the most destabilizing thing that can happen in the course of your day.
Our military families have it even tougher than most, with women serving in uniform themselves or struggling to provide a stable home while facing long deployments and loved ones who are stationed in harm’s way. To me, this reflects a larger problem -- that for too long, policies that help people balance work and family responsibilities have been viewed as niceties for women rather than as a necessity that can benefit all of us, men and women.
There is still this perception out there that employees who want more flexible schedules, so that they can pick up a child after school or take care of an elderly parent, are somehow less committed, and that businesses who accommodate them are destined to be less profitable. But we all know that that’s simply not true. We know that these kinds of policies that support family balance can actually make employees more productive, because they allow them to focus on work rather than worrying about what’s going on at home.
And that’s one of the reasons why my husband has proposed helping states that want to set up paid leave funds, and recognized companies that are adopting innovative polices that focus on work output rather than hours and face time. And that’s why we’re working to make the federal government a model for the kind of change that we’re talking about -- things like expanding telework options and providing emergency childcare and affordable day care.
That’s why we’ve worked to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to have it go to more of our military families. And that’s also why Jill Biden and I are encouraging everyone in this country, including employers, to do everything in their power to support our men and women in uniform and their loved ones. (Applause.)
But in the end, whether we’re talking about health care or the economy or caring for our families, we need to remember that while these issues may affect women in particular, they aren’t just women’s issues. When insurance companies deny coverage to women for preexisting conditions or refuse to cover treatment, it can devastate an entire family. When women make less than men for the same work, that hurts families who find themselves with less income and have to work harder just to get by. And when employers don’t allow employees the flexibility to care for their family, that hurts children, it hurts grandparents, it hurts husbands, and it puts a strain on an entire household.
But the good news is that thanks to so many extraordinary women who came before us, we’ve really come a long way. We know that all of us are here today because of all those generations who put in that time, who packed up their things, and staked their claims in places here, and who cracked and shattered those glass ceilings so that we could have opportunities that they never dreamed of.
And we know that it will be up to all of you -- the leaders, the activists, the visionaries, the organizers, the everyday women, to carry that work forward, because what we’re working towards -- all of us -- is to ensure that our daughters and our granddaughters can dream just a little bigger and reach just a little higher than we did. That’s really why I’m here. (Applause.)
So what I can promise is that if you keep the discussion going, and if all of you keep fighting and organizing and standing up for the causes that we all share, then I know that together -- together -- we will keep moving forward, not just as women, but as Americans.
So I really, truly, can’t express to you how grateful we are for your leadership. We look to you for that energy, so don’t ever stop. Keep it up. And thank you. Thank you for all your support and your hard work.
Thank you so much. (Applause.)
12:05 P.M. PDT