Laura Bush: First feminist?

Press coverage of the president's wife fudges the F-word.

Published January 18, 2006 4:39PM (EST)

From today's Associated Press: "She's far from being tagged a feminist, yet Laura Bush, the librarian-turned-first lady who's often seen reading aloud to children, is raising her voice on women's issues around the world. In travels over the past 10 months from Afghanistan to the Middle East to Africa, Mrs. Bush has broadened her focus on education, her trademark issue, to push equal opportunities for women in nations where they often have second-class status."

Memo to reporter Deb Reichmann: We agree that Laura Bush -- while believed to be "more liberal than her husband," which is kind of like being "less poisonous than arsenic" -- is no Andrea Dworkin. But how is it that "pushing equal opportunities for women" is not "feminist"?

The article also quotes Carl Sferrazza Anthony, "a historian and student of America's first ladies." (Student? Did Laura read 'Make Way for Ducklings' to him?) He says that Laura Bush's "shining a light on inequality among women living in traditionally male-dominated cultures" is a kind of "international feminism." Well, that's nice. But who said "regular" feminism is purely domestic?

"This interest in women's issues may be a way for her to realize some of her own interests," says Barbara Kellerman, author of 'All the President's Kin,' adding: "I would not put Laura Bush at the forefront of the rank of well-known American feminists ... It's all very ladylike and very proper. [You know, like the current Ms. cover.] I don't mean to diminish its symbolic importance, which I think is of some value, but I think we should label it accurately."

In case Kellerman's point wasn't clear, the AP adds: "Mrs. Bush isn't the type to grab a placard and run out to join a women's rights march." You know, like the crazies. "She takes a much softer approach."

Laura Bush's advisors say she is "genuinely interested in seeing a better life for disenfranchised women." I believe this (although again: no Steinem), along with the notion that -- ironically? -- she's freer to agitate abroad than she is at home.

Examples: In Jordan, Mrs. Bush "told Middle Eastern leaders that if the right to vote is to have meaning, it cannot be limited to men. 'Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression,' she said." Last July in South Africa, she "urged South African women to take control of their sex lives and advertised a new initiative to provide real protections for abused women."

Speaking of freedom, wonder how free she'd be to engage in a little domestic feminism and get on similar bandwagons at home. We'll also see to what degree the U.S. puts its money -- or, where appropriate, AIDS-preventing condoms -- where its mouthpiece is.

"Ritu Sharma, director of Women's Edge Coalition, which oversees how U.S. international aid programs work for women, applauded Mrs. Bush for talking about empowering women, but she worries it's just part of a diplomacy campaign to burnish America's image abroad. Mrs. Bush's words need to be backed by funding, Sharma said. Her organization is waiting to see how well women and girls fare in the next budget Bush submits to Congress."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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