Was Barbara Bush a Feminist? Here’s What Her Biographer Says

Barbara Bush had juggled the expectations placed on women from a certain era for much of her life. When a young George Herbert Walker Bush decided to leave the comfort of New England for the wilds of Texas, it didn’t occur to him to ask Barbara what she thought about it. “I never, never wondered about whether she’d want to go,” the former president, by then 93 years old, told me in an interview in his Houston office. “Well, Bar, she’s never spoiled. And it’s all worked out.”

By the time he formally announced his first candidacy for President, Bush’s advisers weren’t sure how much of a political asset Barbara Bush would be. Bush once told a top aide that the problem with a strong wife is that she could make her husband look weak in comparison. There were also concerns about her appearance. Bush looked younger than he was; she looked older than she was. Voters sometimes assumed she was Bush’s mother, not his wife. Her outspoken sister-in-law, Nancy Ellis, told Barbara that she had been the subject of a family discussion at a dinner that hadn’t included her. The topic: “What are we going to do about Bar?”

During the campaign year of 1988, she was repeatedly portrayed on NBC’s Saturday Night Live — in ways that would seem unimaginable now — by comedian Phil Hartman in drag. “Tell me, are you proud of your son?” the Barbara Bush character was asked during one skit. She replied, “He is not my son. He is my husband.” The imperious interviewer turned to the audience and said, “Well, she looks so much older, I hardly think it’s my faux pas.” On another Saturday Night Live skit that year, Hartman portrayed a frumpy Barbara Bush as comedian Jan Hooks depicted a stylish Elizabeth Dole. In what purported to be a joint appearance on a TV show, the interviewer enumerated Dole’s impressive education and governmental career. “Heavens, do they ever call you Wonder Woman?” she gushed, then turned to Bush and said in a patronizing tone, “Now, Barbara, I understand you’ve written a book about the family cocker spaniel and you’re working on a rug.”

Decades later, as we talked in the living room of her Houston home, Barbara Bush dismissed my question about whether that demeaning depiction had been hurtful. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said, adding, “You’re sitting on the rug.”

But no moment would put Barbara Bush more center stage in the debates within the women’s movement than the one that came to her, seemingly quite innocently, in 1990, when she was First Lady of the United States. A moment that represented a cultural watershed, setting a marker about enduring priorities at a time when many women and men were struggling to sort out a changing world.

Dozens of invitations had begun arriving soon after Barbara Bush moved into the White House, asking the First Lady to deliver commencement addresses in the spring of 1990. She wanted to accept a mix that included different sorts of schools and different regions of the country. She chose Saint Louis University, a Catholic school in Missouri; Southwest Community College in Cumberland, Ky., in Appalachia’s Harlan County; and Wellesley College, one of the Seven Sisters schools in Massachusetts.

Her chief of staff, Susan Porter Rose, “hadn’t been enthusiastic about accepting Wellesley,” Barbara Bush wrote in her diary in April 1990, in an aside that suggested she wished she had listened to that advice. Rose had a feeling that the elite all-women school with strong feminist roots — witness that the student speaker for the class of 1969 had been one Hillary Rodham — might not be a friendly venue. She turned out to be right.

“It struck me as tremendously incongruous to tell us for four years that we should be recognized on our own merits and then invite someone on the eve of our graduation who was in the public eye because of who she was married to, regardless of how lovely she was as a human being,” Peggy Reid, one of the graduates, recalled years later. When Wellesley announced that Barbara Bush would be the commencement speaker, Reid and a friend, Susana Rosario Cardenas, got on the phone that night to talk. “We were all wondering, why is it that the college had invited a woman who was being recognized due to her marriage to her husband?” Cardenas told me. “We thought there may be a few others who think similarly, and we came up with the idea of a petition.”

They drafted language, discussed it with friends, printed out a copy for each of the dorms, and set up a table in the student center to solicit signatures. Of the 600 graduating seniors, 150 signed it. The tone was tough. “We are outraged by this choice and feel it is important to make ourselves heard immediately,” it read. “Wellesley teaches us that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contradicts what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley. Regardless of her political affiliation, we feel that she does not successfully exemplify the qualities that Wellesley seeks to instill in us.”

The petition drive prompted a story in the college newspaper, the Wellesley News. A stringer for the Associated Press filed a short story that went out on the wire. Two days later, the Boston Globe ran a follow-up article on the front page with a quote from the White House press secretary. Then: a deluge, much of it taking offense on Barbara Bush’s behalf. A headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Wellesley Women a Bunch of Snobs.” The Denver Post called the protesters “snobbish little brats.” Columnists from conservative Cal Thomas to liberal Ellen Goodman enumerated the contributions Barbara Bush had made to public life. More than 7,000 articles were published in magazines and newspapers around the world, according to an academic study published five years later.

Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, a Democrat, called President Bush to say how offended she was, offering to help. Former president Richard Nixon called Barbara Bush. “You tell those girls to go to the devil,” he advised.

In public, Barbara Bush was gracious when asked about the controversy. In private, though, she felt embattled and hurt. She was adamant that she wasn’t going to recast her message in the face of the protests. “I did not want to complain, explain, or apologize in any way,” she told her staff.

The protests and the debate they sparked over women’s roles in the United States created such a furor that all three major broadcast networks decided to carry the graduation speech live — the first time that had happened for a First Lady. Anchors and analysts were watching to provide the sort of commentary usually reserved for presidential addresses.

In a speech that lasted just 11 minutes, Barbara Bush urged the graduates to make three choices. The first was to believe in something larger than themselves, as she had with literacy. The second was to live their lives with joy — again, as she had.

“The third choice that must not be missed is to cherish your human connections: your relationships with family and friends,” she went on. “For several years, you’ve had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work, and of course, that’s true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer, or business leader will be, you are a human being first and those human connections — with spouses, with children, with friends — are the most important investments you will ever make. “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal,” she told them. “You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, or a parent.”

Wellesley College Commencement
Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev at Wellesley College graduation exercises in 1990.Cynthia Johnson—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Her remarks acknowledged that times were changing. “We are in a transitional period right now — fascinating and exhilarating times, learning to adjust to the changes and the choices we, men and women, are facing.” At the end, she tweaked a remark she had made at other commencements, suggesting the day when a woman would be president. “And who knows?” she said. “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse.” She paused. “I wish him well!” That brought down the house.

The East Wing staff, aware of how nervous Barbara Bush had been about the speech, had prepared a banner to welcome her home, regardless of how it went. “A Job Wellesley Done,” it proclaimed. When she got out of the car on the South Lawn of the White House and saw it, she nearly cried. The reviews were glowing, the reverberations remarkable. American Rhetoric rated it as one of the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. At No. 45, it was ranked just below William Jennings Bryan’s “Flag of an Empire” address in 1900 and just above John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s civil rights address in 1963.

Barbara Bush’s views of the feminist movement that caught fire during the 1960s and 1970s, a movement that reexamined assumptions about women and opened opportunities for them, were complicated and sometimes critical.

In some ways, Barbara Bush walked the walk of feminism: She was competent and confident; she had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to express them; she supported the career aspirations of her granddaughters as well as her grandsons; she thought women should be free to choose what path they took. She had endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights when those were fierce controversies in the Republican Party, although she ducked those issues when they began creating complications for her husband’s political career.

That said, she didn’t talk the talk. She refused to call herself a feminist. She complained that George Bush faced a double standard when he ran against Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984, and George W. Bush faced the same uneven playing field when he ran against Texas governor Ann Richards ten years later. “Certainly it’s harder campaigning against a woman,” she said. “They play by women’s rules, and hit like a man.”

In February 2018, in the last of five interviews I had with her during the final months of her life, her ambivalence toward the word and the movement was apparent. “Do I believe in equal rights for women? Yes,” she told me. “But I wouldn’t put myself as a feminist, no.” What about the term did she reject? “Well, because I’m not going to get out and crusade for it. Don’t you think feminists have to crusade?” Not necessarily, I replied. We went around and around. “You’re being really slippery on the whole feminist thing,” I finally said in surrender. “Yes,” she agreed, smiling. “Very slippery.”

Almost three decades after the Wellesley speech, in 2006, Barbara Bush seethed after another college commencement, this one at the George Washington University. She and former president George Bush each delivered remarks, and each received an honorary degree. Her speech, she told her diary, had been “really funny” (“if I say so my self”) and pivoted to a serious note at the end. “All of this to tell you that I was really hurt, well maybe mad, at least upset by my citation,” she went on. “It was three or four minutes long and never said one thing that I had done for others… Literacy, hospital boards, anything. I was a housewife and a mother, a saint who sacrificed her life for her husband and children.” The citation mentioned Barbara Bush’s father, her husband, her children, her humor and her famous lack of cooking skills. It made no reference to anything else she had done over the previous 81 years of her life.

“I had not realized that I was a women’s libber, but I am now,” Barbara Bush wrote afterward, venting to her diary. “Of course I love that part of my life, but I love the other side, too.”

Adapted from The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty by Susan Page (Twelve Books).

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