LOS ANGELES — It has been 16 months since Michelle Obama left the White House and returned to private life, but actress Tracee Ellis Ross still can’t bring herself to call the former first lady “Michelle.”
The two women are friends — the kind of friends that text each other. And yet.
“Mrs. O and I …” Ross said before a chuckling crowd of 6,000 women Saturday night, kicking off a lively, humor-filled conversation between the two that covered Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, President Trump, Obama’s kindergarten spelling bee, motherhood, feminist fatherhood and how nobody, including Ross, has figured out what to call Obama in her post-East Wing days.
“I trick around it,” Ross said. “Like, ‘hey, you, lady.’”
“It’s Michelle,” Obama quipped back with a smirk, to which Ross responded: “Nope. You make me feel like I want to curtsy.”
Their appearance together was the climax of day one at the United State of Women Summit on Saturday, a gathering of women activists, creatives, entrepreneurs and celebrities that aims to facilitate collaboration between groups working nationwide to improve the lives of women. The first summit was co-hosted by the Obama administration’s White House Council on Women and Girls and took place in the summer of 2016, just months before Trump defeated the country’s first female presidential candidate.
On that particular subject, Obama had some thoughts — prompted by a question about young girls and their dreams. How, Ross wanted to know, could society encourage them to yearn for more?
The answer came in multiple parts.
The first: “In light of this last election I’m concerned about us as women and what we think about ourselves and each other... What is going on in our heads where we let that happen?” she said with a vagueness that wasn’t that vague at all.
The second: “If we as women are still suspicious of one another, if we still have this crazy, crazy bar for each other that we don’t have for men, if we’re still doing that today, if we’re still not comfortable with a woman being our president compared to… what?” she said. “We have to have that conversation with ourselves as women. That’s not an external conversation because that’s on us.”
That carpe diem tone appeared again when someone in the crowd shouted out — as they always do when Obama appears in public — that the former first lady should just run for office herself. She was quick to shut it down. That suggestion, she said, is “part of the problem.”
“We still didn’t get ‘Yes we can,’ right,” Obama said. “It’s not ‘yes you can,’ it’s ‘yes we can.’ And until we get that right, it doesn’t matter who runs.”
The “who” question is still too far away, Obama said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do before we’re focused on the ‘who,’” Obama said. “All of us here in the room are the answer to our own problems. It is not finding the one right person that can save us from ourselves. It’s us.”
Looking for the next person to run, Obama said, has “been our distraction.” Take, for example, her husband’s presidency. When the first black president didn’t eradicate racism, some were befuddled — and started looking for the next singular person to come along and fix everything. But more can be done at the dinner table, at the coffee shop and in conversations with children to change culture in small ways.
That change happens, Obama said, by fathers not only telling their daughters to dream big — but ensuring that the workplaces those girls will inherit one day are inclusive and safe. That change also happens by encouraging adult women to set an example for young women by stretching their comfort zone.
“I think if we want our daughters to dream bigger than we did, then we have more work to do,” Obama said. “So many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we’re still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up.”
It was and still is the “fearless” next generation that gives her hope when there seems to be none.
“Because of them, we can’t give up,” Obama said.
And what started as a conversation between friends ended that way, too. Obama praised Ross for “holding it all together.”
“I’m so proud of you, I really am,” Obama said. “And I love you.”
Then the women held hands and Ross gave the crowd — and the former first lady — what they’d been waiting on.