The power list – Michelle Obama and the influential women leading the current shift in gender equality

We profile a selection of influential women who are at the forefront of speaking out about gender inequality.

2018 has been a year when women worldwide have loudly and collectively spoken out about gender inequality and male oppression.

In New Zealand it was the year our Prime Minister made global headlines for having a baby while in office. It is a new wave of feminist strength that coincidentally comes 125 years after Kiwi women were given the vote.

Leading with former US First Lady Michelle Obama, The Australian Women’s Weekly is proud to profile our selection of influential women who are at the forefront of this shift in the gender equation.

Michelle Obama – The real-life First Lady

There are three delightful anecdotes that sum up a lot of what there is to love about Michelle Obama.

One, back when she was Michelle Robinson, her first interaction with the man who would become her husband, and the 44th President of the United States, was when she was assigned as his mentor at a Chicago law firm.

Barack Obama, then 28, was the over-eager new lawyer who kept trying to date her, despite her protests that it was “tacky” to date someone she was in charge of. It was only after Barack offered to quit his job that she relented.

Two, after they had been dating for three years, and they were out for dinner one night, she had a go at Barack for why he hadn’t proposed to her yet.

During dessert, he took out a jewellery box with an engagement ring and put it in front of her, reportedly saying, “Well, that shuts you up, doesn’t it?”

Finally, years later, when a young girl told Michelle she wanted to be First Lady when she grew up, Michelle drily replied, “It doesn’t pay well.”

Considering they’re one of the most famous families on the planet, the Obamas have done a tremendous job of avoiding the public eye since they left the White House in January 2017.

Barack and Michelle have popped up here and there, sometimes for serious reasons – like the video Michelle recently released urging people to vote in the mid-term elections – and sometimes for happy reasons, such as the wedding she officiated at for the daughter of a family friend.

Well, that has changed. On November 14, Michelle released her long-awaited memoir, Becoming. It is, she says, her most personal work yet – and what she’s been putting together since leaving the White House behind her.

“I am proud of what I’ve created. I’m proud because it is candid, it’s honest, it is totally and utterly me. So I’m also a little frightened because it is so candid and honest and open!”

In news that won’t surprise you, this book is a big deal: the book tour Michelle is doing across North America is something akin to a rock concert. She’s even selling out venues that normally see the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Cher performing, which seat a minimum of 15,000.

The demand to hear from Michelle – and the famous friends that will be joining her on stage – is greater than ever.

One of the reasons Michelle has resonated with so many people – and so many women in particular – is that she felt like us.

Going into the White House, she was a working mother who was open about how hard it was. She took the exalted First Lady position and made it something more real, more human. She called herself “Mom in Chief”.

She established the same kitchen table rule that her parents had done when she was growing up, where she and her brother Craig were encouraged to talk about anything and everything with their parents.

“It was important that we made sure to give the girls a space that was just about them,” Michelle says about dinner time at the White House.

“Bin Laden was not invited to dinner. The financial crisis was not invited to dinner.”

The public life of a political job, Michelle has often said, was something she never grew accustomed to. The ease with which she has slipped away from the limelight since leaving the White House is a good indication of how much she didn’t enjoy it.

But she was a crucial part of what made the Obama administration work so well, because from that long-awaited first date onwards, Michelle and Barack were a team.

In fact, during one of his State of the Union addresses, Barack joked: “If you were going to list the 100 most popular things that I have done as President, being married to Michelle Obama is number one.”

In his campaign speeches, the biggest tip he had for young men was to “marry a woman who’s superior to you”.

The role of First Lady comes with no official rules or guidelines. In the past few decades it has gone from being a glorified plus-one to being a position that’s just as much in the spotlight as the presidential role. For Michelle, it was not a comfortable place to be – and she had taken a massive step down in her career in order to take on what is still an unpaid job.

Previous to moving into the White House, Michelle, a Princeton and Harvard educated lawyer, had held a high-profile job on the executive board of the University of Chicago Medical Centre, where she earned almost three times the senate salary of her husband. And then, of course, there was the historical precedent the Obama family knew they were setting, as the only African American First Family to ever live there.

“We feel privileged, and we feel a responsibility to make it feel like the people’s house. We have the good fortune of being able to sleep here, but this house belongs to America,” Michelle told Oprah shortly after the family moved in.

She also made the role of First Lady her own, focusing on big causes like childhood obesity and education for girls – causes she has continued to work on even now that she’s out of the White House.

Having a strong work ethic is something that was drilled into Michelle from a young age. She and brother Craig grew up in a loving but under-pressure family: they were poor, living in the low socio-economic south side of Chicago. Their father, Fraser, had multiple sclerosis but managed to go to work every day as a pump operator for the water department, until gradually his symptoms became too crippling.

“Everything that I think about and do is shaped around the life that I lived in that little apartment in the bungalow my father worked so hard to provide for us,” Michelle says.

Even though they are now based in Washington DC, having Chicago as their home town is something Barack and Michelle are still fiercely proud of – it’s where Barack did his first speech as President Elect in 2008, and his final speech as President in 2017.

When the family first moved into the White House in early 2009, Michelle was determined that their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, then aged just seven and 10, would not become spoilt by their suddenly privileged surroundings.

“If these girls don’t learn how to make a bed or clean a room, what are they going to do when they go to college? I [wanted] the kids to be treated like children, not little princesses.”

Their daughters helped set the table, bring the food out, they made their own breakfasts. The impact of White House life on her daughters was at the front of Michelle’s mind for the full eight years.

“When they set off for the first day at their new school, I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls pile into those black SUVs and all those big men with guns, and I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?'”

The Obamas were also one of the youngest First Families to enter the White House, so the juggle of working full time and raising small children was something Michelle was very aware of.

She has spoken in the past about how resentful she was of Barack’s hours working in the Senate, leaving Michelle as a solo parent for long stretches of time. Ironically, living in the White House made family life easier because there was no longer a massive home-to-work commute. In one of her earliest interviews as First Lady, Michelle talked in detail about how hard life as a political spouse was.

“I took my last job [before Barack entered the White House] because of my boss’s reaction to my family situation. I didn’t have a babysitter, so I took Sasha right in there with me in her crib and her rocker. I was still nursing, so I was wearing my nursing shirt. I told my boss, ‘This is what I have: two small kids. My husband is running for the US Senate. I will not work part time. I need flexibility. I need a good salary. I need to be able to afford babysitting. And if you can do all that, and you’re willing to be flexible with me because I will get the job done, I can work hard on a flexible schedule.’ I was very clear. And he said yes to everything.”

A key message from the book Michelle wants to get across to women is that they need to be able to ask for help.

“One thing we do as women is we beat up on ourselves. To do a good job, you feel like you have to go above and beyond. My message is to give yourself a break,” she says.

But Becoming isn’t just about the serious stuff – one of the great joys of Michelle is that she never took the pomp and ceremony of life in Washington DC too seriously.

One story that directly proves this is the delightful tale of the final sleepover Michelle and her daughters threw on their last night in the White House.

“It is the morning of [Trump’s] inauguration and I’ve got eight little girls ordering their favourite breakfasts. I see trays of food rolling into the bedrooms. I’m asking them how their parents are going to come pick them up when all the roads are closed. I’m scooting all of them out through the freight elevator because the Trumps are coming.”

It’s a classic Michelle story – highlighting the fact that even in the strangest, fanciest settings, her priorities never shifted. That’s the power of who she is, and why her take on things is still so crucial. There’s a reason why her line from the 2016 Democratic convention, where she was throwing her immense support behind Hillary Clinton, has been quoted ever since: “When they go low, we go high.”

In a world full of people willing to keep going lower, Michelle stands for all the hope and positivity her husband once won an election with. She may not ever run for office herself, but that’s not going to be any limit on what she does next; in fact, if there was ever going to be a First Lady who ended up more powerful than her husband, we’d put our money on Michelle.

Loading the player...

Jacinda Ardern – The Leader

You couldn’t look for a more positive photo op in 2018 – a year filled with endless #MeToo stories that made women’s collective blood boil – than our Prime Minister and her gorgeous baby Neve sitting in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

It was Jacinda Ardern’s first visit to the UN as Prime Minister, and even though her speech was well received, it was tiny Neve sitting on dad Clarke Gayford’s lap who stole the show.

Jacinda became New Zealand’s leader on October 26 last year, and it’s safe to say that no one else has ever had a first year in power like hers.

“I cannot stress how much the UN – and the governments that comprise it – need this,” tweeted Samantha Power, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to the UN, about the shot of Jacinda, Clarke and Neve sitting in the General Assembly for the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit.

There was also a photo of Neve in a tiny United Nations onesie, not to mention the official “First baby of NZ” ID tag she was given to complement Clarke’s “Spouse of the Prime Minister” one.

As far as good PR goes, it’s hard to imagine a smoother-sailing official trip for a leader.

Two words Jacinda has prioritised in her first year in the role are “kindness” and “empathy”. They are not showy words. They are not words often used in leadership speeches. They are, it could be said, feminine in nature. In her first speech as Prime Minister, Jacinda said she wanted to create an empathetic government.

Later on that day, she said she wanted the government to “feel different, I want people to feel that it’s open, that it’s listening and that it’s going to bring kindness back”.

And then, at the UN, just days after President Trump had brought the house down – and not in a good way – she got up and said, “If I could distill it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand, it is simple and it is this. Kindness in the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any.”

If 2017 was a big year for Jacinda, as she became Prime Minister, and if 2018 was even bigger, as she became a first-time mother while Prime Minister, then we can only imagine what she’s going to do next.

Taking the ordinary, everyday acts of motherhood into places they’ve never been seen before is the quiet, empathetic kind of revolution that’s truly extraordinary to see.

Eleanor Catton – The Author

One of our brightest stars, Eleanor Catton has also proven to be very, very good at staying out of the limelight when she wants to.

It’s less of a spotlight-avoiding choice than it sounds, however; mostly, she’s just been working exceptionally hard on two high-profile projects.

There’s a new book, due in 2019; a psychological thriller set in the not-too-distant future. Birnam Woods, the working title, takes place when a global catastrophe is on the horizon and the world’s rich have relocated to New Zealand to sit it out. It’s a survival epic, and Eleanor has said she’s been reading a lot of Lee Child to prepare for it, so it sounds about as far away from her Booker-prize-winning book The Luminaries as you can get. It’s less than half the size as well.

But fans of the iconic West Coast novel will get an opportunity to revisit Anna Wetherell in early 2020. For the past two years, Eleanor has been adapting The Luminaries into a six-part miniseries, a joint production between Working Title in the UK and Southern Light Films in NZ.

“I’ve had tremendous fun adapting this novel for the screen,” she said recently of the mammoth project.

“Writing a novel is a solitary business, but writing for the screen is emphatically collaborative, and to see the world of The Luminaries enlarged and enriched in ways that go far beyond the scope of my own imagination has been a humbling and hugely exhilarating experience.”

The series is being filmed here from November, and will star Eva Green (Vesper from Casino Royale) and Kiwi actor Marton Csokas. Eleanor had previously described adapting her own novel for TV as “a complete nightmare”, saying she had been naive about how hard it would be. But there is major excitement for the project and Eleanor, who was the youngest ever winner of the Booker prize at just 28, is more than up to the task.

Writing has been in her blood all her life; she estimates that she wrote her first “novel” when she was just nine years old. “It was 30 pages long and included this diamond-plated sentence: ‘The moon slipped out from behind a cloud, heedless of oblivion.'” With a TV series and a new book on the way – and the fact she’s just turned 33 – we’re looking at decades more work from this talented Kiwi.

Kamala Harris – The Politician

With all the madness currently swirling around US politics, there is one question people keep asking: ‘Who is going to be the next Barack Obama?’

After all, we’re now almost two years into President Trump’s administration (time flies when you’re on the verge of apocalypse) and a clear contender has yet to formally emerge. But a big favourite amongst the Democrats is California Senator Kamala Harris.

At 53, she’s the youngest of the possible nominees – Joe Biden is 75, Elizabeth Warren is 69 – and she’s also half Jamaican, half Indian. As a first-generation American, she’s been particularly passionate about supporting the rights of the immigrants moving to the US – rights that are under direct threat from the current US White House.

She has Obama’s seal of approval; back in 2013, he said, “She is brilliant, and she is dedicated, and she is tough.”

Kamala is keeping mum on whether or not she’s going to run for President in 2020, but she’s not ruling it out – stating that she wants to focus on the many problems at hand in the meantime. But she’s making impressive headlines as she challenges one member of the Trump team after another; the latest being Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

There were fears in the US that Kavanaugh becoming part of the Supreme Court could threaten women’s reproductive rights, as he would become yet another conservative judge keen to repeal the groundbreaking 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling that made abortion legal.

At the Senate confirmation hearings, where senators were able to question him on what he would do if he joined the Supreme Court, during the discussion on abortion Kamala asked Kavanaugh: “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?” He could not.

Those running for office in 2020 will likely announce their candidacy in early 2019. All eyes are on Kamala as we get closer to that time.

Jameela Jamil – The Body Positive Advocate

The influence of social media on how women of all ages feel about themselves is pervasive, disturbing and ever growing. And if we’re feeling it, as proper grown women, it’s safe to say that the younger generation are right in the thick of it.

If you’re looking for a body positive role model to park in front of your child, grandchild or, frankly, yourself, then might we suggest Jameela Jamil. The London-born actress has hit the big time with Netflix’s weird and wonderful TV show The Good Place, but it’s her outspoken real-life persona that is the reason she’s fast becoming such an inspirational figure.

The road to self-esteem has not been easy for Jameela: she developed an eating disorder at 15 and then – as she tells it – “luckily I was hit by a car at 17 and broke my spine”. It took something that drastic to make her realise how cruel she had been to her body, and after being stuck in bed for a year, she developed an appreciation for her body’s resilience that she never lost.

It also made her fiercely aware of and protective against the various influences that chip away at women’s self-esteem, and she’s become a vocal critic of those who use their platform to contribute to that negatively, most often the Kardashians and the empire they have amassed.

“The money is built on the blood and tears of young women who believe in them, who follow them, who look up to them like the big sister they never had. It’s so upsetting. It feels like such a betrayal against women,” she said recently.

In the #MeToo movement, Jameela has also become a smart voice amongst the fray – her nuanced response to the issue of consent has meant that she’s ended up fronting a BBC documentary about it.

She’s smart, funny and she takes no prisoners – in an industry often too afraid to name names or point the finger, Jameela is fast becoming known for speaking out. And the final tick? She was handpicked by feminist icon Caitlin Moran to star in the film adaptation of How to Build A Girl, because Caitlin adores her so much.

Queen Elizabeth – The Monarch

Although many countries still have thriving royal families, none of them have the power or majesty of the British. And while the younger generation – including William, Kate, Harry and Meghan – has helped move the royals into the modern era, it is the original icon, Elizabeth II, who continues to be the real strength of the monarchy.

At 92 years old, the Queen is the longest-living, longest-reigning monarch. In a world often filled with turmoil, she has been the one constant that has grounded her country and Commonwealth.

Ex-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once described her as “an anchor for our age in a churning and changing world”. Not only is she a fearless leader, she is also a mother, grandmother and wife, who has resolutely supported and protected her family.

Despite criticism and controversy throughout her 66 years on the throne, she has stood firm in her beliefs. Even prior to her coronation she was steadfast about marrying Philip, whom she loved, even though he was foreign-born and had no financial standing.

Although so much pomp and ceremony still exists in the world of royalty, Elizabeth II has made a conscious effort to move with the times.

Her feature as the royal Bond girl in the 2012 London Olympic Opening Ceremony was a delight, and in a recent interview with Sir David Attenborough she showed she is not shy of a joke or two either.

“Sounds like President Trump,” she remarked when a loud helicopter flew over the palace grounds. While she remained deadpan, David could not help but smirk and let out a chuckle at the unexpected dig!

Olivia Colman – The Entertainer

When Claire Foy, who played the Queen so extraordinarily in the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown, casually announced that she would be replaced moving forward, everyone was in uproar.

Even though it had been the plan all along – to use older actors as the show’s characters aged – there was still a panic. Then producers revealed that it would be Olivia Colman, and the world rejoiced.

So universally beloved is Olivia that what could have been a disaster now looks like the greatest possible casting choice.

Olivia, 44, first came to attention for her comedy roles in shows like Black Books, Rev and Peep Show, and went on to knock it out of the park in roles like 2011’s The Iron Lady, where she played Carol Thatcher (the daughter of Meryl Streep’s character), and Meryl referred to her as being “divinely gifted”.

Then came Broadchurch, which made her an international star. So successful, in fact, that when it came to 2016’s The Night Manager, they switched the male chief of Secret Intelligence Service character to female for Olivia. Suddenly, in her early 40s – not a time when actresses normally hit the big time – Olivia was one of the most in-demand stars in the world.

In August, the Radio Times named Olivia the most powerful person in British television, around the same time as the release of the first image of her playing Queen Elizabeth in season three of The Crown, which will air in 2019.

Olivia plays another real-life royal in the historical film The Favourite (due in cinemas late December) – this time Queen Anne, who gets involved in a political and sexual love triangle. Already a firm Oscar favourite, Olivia won the Best Actress award at this year’s Venice Film Festival for the role.

Years ago, when she had just picked up two acting awards in England – one for a drama and one for a comedy – a journalist for the Radio Times wrote, “Olivia Colman is to acting what Germany is to car making and gravity is to the universe: she is technically excellent and manages to be everywhere all at once.”

In 2019, that’s going to become even more true.

Kristine Bartlett – The Campaigner

A New Zealander of the Year can come in many different forms; a film director, an All Black captain or an anthropologist. But they all share one thing – making a significant and positive impact on their country. So it was only fitting that Kristine Bartlett was awarded the title this year.

The equal-pay advocate was recognised for her mammoth fight to establish pay equality for those working in the care and support industry. Kristine was also recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to equal pay advocacy.

Her five-year battle, which included three court cases, two appeals and one landmark pay settlement, changed the lives of more than 55,000 carers, most of whom were female.

Kristine’s campaign began after she realised that despite more than two decades’ experience as an aged-care worker, she was barely earning the minimum wage.

“She didn’t seek out admiration or special recognition for what she helped achieve,” said New Zealander of the Year judge Cameron Bennett. “She saw a need and had the courage of conviction to take action.”

But for Kristine it was only ever about being paid her worth.

“It will give us dignity and pride and make our lives worthwhile, knowing we’re being paid what we are actually worth,” she says. “After years of struggling on low wages, hopefully we’re going to have a bit left over to actually enjoy life.”

Sophie Pascoe – The Athlete

There is something so incredibly remarkable about the Paralympics. The courage and determination of people to succeed despite some pretty big odds is awe-inspiring and humbling. Many athletes were born able-bodied but in a twist of fate the course of their lives was altered, just like our own Sophie Pascoe.

At two years old, Sophie was run over by a ride-on lawnmower on her family’s lifestyle block. The damage was so bad her left leg had to be amputated from below the knee.

Now, at the age of 25, the swimmer is a nine-time gold medallist and our most successful ever Paralympian. Even Paralympics New Zealand has dubbed her a “national treasure”.

She has competed in three Paralympic Games, two Commonwealth Games and has broken numerous world records since she took up swimming at age seven. Her dedication to the sport is obvious as she still trains 14 times a week and plans on making Tokyo 2020 her fourth Paralympics.

But Sophie has done so much more for Paralympics as a whole, and for those with disabilities. We celebrate her achievements just as we would those of an able-bodied athlete – which Sophie has always said was her overarching goal with her sport.

She received an MBE at the age of 15, she has received the Halberg Award for Disabled Sportsperson of the Year five times and won the Leadership Award in 2016 after her Rio campaign.

The swimmer has recently had major surgery to remove the fibula and main nerve from her stump. The operation is aimed at enhancing “my future wellbeing”, enabling her to walk and train better, she says.

The young woman who once eclipsed All Blacks captain Richie McCaw for the Canterbury Sportsperson of the Year award said in her 2013 autobiography that she didn’t want to be remembered as Sophie Pascoe the swimmer but for “what I did in and out of the pool”.

Pink – The Musician

While pop princesses of the 2000s, such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, were wearing barely-there outfits and singing about boys, Pink was already paving her own path.

With her brightly dyed hair, out-of-the-box style and lyrics about angst, body confidence and divorce, it’s not hard to see how the singer, born Alecia Beth Moore, has sustained a successful career over the past 20 years.

Now 39, the mum-of-two is only getting better. Her seventh, and latest, album, Beautiful Trauma, was the world’s third top-selling album of 2017 behind Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.

She is not only a star in her own right with her power-house vocals, but also a prolific songwriter, penning tracks for the likes of Cher and Celine Dion. Not to mention her spectacular acrobatic feats during her recent world tour, which took in Auckland. Most people can’t run and speak, let alone perform acrobatics and hold a tune!

On top of her professional career, Pink is a staunch advocate and supporter of the LGBT community, animal rights group PETA and UNICEF, to name a few.

But she is first and foremost mother to Willow Sage (seven) and Jameson Moon (one). She has been brutally honest about parenting and once said, “[The fellow mom] finds strength in knowing that someone like me is out there screwing it all up, too.”

During her 128-show tour across North America and Oceania in March this year with family in tow, she showed the world that even the most kick-ass of women can’t do everything at once. Struck down with a severe gastric virus, Pink had to cancel four shows.

While she was criticised for being seen on the beach after cancelling, she was quick to set the record straight, saying, “What these parasite paparazzi don’t show you, is two doctor visits in Byron on two consecutive days, antibiotics, steroids, Vicks, nose spray, throat spray, more steroids, NyQuil, a screaming baby in the middle of the night, every night, while Mama gives him warm baths and tells her daughter everything is fine.” Go Pink!

Shonda Rhimes – The Change-maker

Back when Shonda Rhimes was first starting to work out the characters for her debut TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, she got some pretty negative feedback.

“We created a brand and an audience for [television network] ABC that they did not necessarily have before, which was a certain kind of woman. I remember them saying when we started that no woman is going to watch a woman who is this ‘not nice’, and this sexually active and this competitive,” Shonda says.

“But the ‘smart, strong, women’ thing really exploded with the shows we made. And people followed along in a way that felt really good for network television.”

Before Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda had written a couple of movie hits – Crossroads and The Princess Diaries – but when she pitched a show about war correspondents to Disney she was told to try a medical show instead. In 2003, Grey’s Anatomy was purchased by Disney and by the end of 2005, 20 million US viewers had tuned in to watch the first season – despite the fact that the show contained very many not nice, sexually active, competitive women.

Shonda went on to either create or executive produce two other massively successful shows: Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. She prioritised having an inclusive cast, at a time when diversity wasn’t a priority for the higher powers of television. Kerry Washington, for instance, was the first black female lead in 40 years when she was announced as the main character of Scandal.

Now Shonda is taking her “Shondaland” genius to a new platform, after Netflix scooped her up for a four-year deal reportedly worth a whopping $300m. Shonda has already announced the line-up of new shows and they are all female-centric stories about busy, complex, challenging women.

In her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person – which we highly recommend – Shonda talks about the benefit of hard work over dreaming, and how it turned her into the powerhouse she is today.

“Lucky implies I didn’t do anything. Lucky implies something was given to me. Lucky implies that I was handed something I did not earn, that I did not work hard for. Gentle reader, may you never be lucky. I am not lucky. You know what I am? I am smart, I am talented, I take advantage of the opportunities that come my way and I work really, really hard. Don’t call me lucky. Call me a badass.”

Related stories

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.