|First Lady Barbara Bush|
When I was thirteen, I was part of the Speech Team (why a shy, gay kid would want to give public speeches when he barely liked raising his hand in school is still a mystery to me-there wasn't even a cute boy I was chasing in the club). I was on the "Great Speeches" team, giving MacArthur's farewell address across West Central Minnesota, and because there weren't a lot of people I was competing against, there was one girl from a neighboring town whose speech I basically had memorized by the end of the season because I kept hearing it at various events.
Her piece was Barbara Bush's Wellesley Commencement Address in 1990, a speech which caused considerable protest at the time amongst the young, liberal student body who didn't want a woman who had devoted her life to being a wife and mother (the then-Ms. Pierce was a college dropout, leaving Smith when she married her husband of 73 years, George Bush). The student body protested that a woman who stood against the feminist wave of the 1970's and 80's should be chosen to address future leaders of America, with The Color Purple author Alice Walker beating the First Lady in a vote for the choice of speaker. Ms. Walker declined, and Bush addressed the graduates with the quip "Now I know your first choice today was Alice Walker, known for The Color Purple...instead, you got me, known for the color of my hair."
The person interpreting the speech in my high school, who read that speech so often to me, taught me a lesson, because as I listened to the words, it felt very different than the vindicated reading she'd brought to Barbara Bush's accomplished tone and text. Yes, Bush was impressive, but she also presented a rather demeaning version of feminism, one that seemed to value only choice, but not necessarily agreeing with a woman's choices after she became a mother. This was one of the first times that I thought critically about a public person's actions and deeds versus what I had been taught to believe of the public figure. I reread the speech after the announcement of Mrs. Bush's demise, and I was struck by how insulting it was, particularly realizing that she'd taken this spot almost entirely on the merits of her husband's career, and seemed to scold the women in the audience while being witty and clever enough to get away with it, a bit like if Tallulah Bankhead ran the Club for Growth.
In a similar fashion to Nancy Reagan before her, Barbara Bush's public policy positions contradicted the actions of her husband. Mrs. Bush, an avid advocate for illiteracy, seemingly whitewashed over her husband's failures in education policy, particularly in not achieving his goals toward universal Head Start and his strong advocacy for school vouchers, which in many ways perpetuate the "generational" effect of illiteracy that Mrs. Bush wanted to banish. She publicly asked for the Republican Party to keep abortion rights and gay rights out of the platform, saying this was a private matter (at the time, a more liberal response to such issues than most in public life were willing to make), but her husband and particularly her sons would make demonizing women's reproductive rights and gay marriage critical to their political success.
I wrote when Margaret Thatcher died that I'm not a big fan of just ignoring the realities of someone's life when they die, even if you don't wish them ill will and you hope their family has some peace. I wish that for Mrs. Bush's family, but I cannot deny that as I grew up, my childhood opinion of her shifted to something of distaste. At best, she was a devoted mother & wife, someone who publicly backed populist causes, but wasn't willing to use her privilege and fame to convince those in power to make a shift in policy. In this way, she and her daughter-in-law Laura (as well as the current First Lady) are anomalies. She didn't take a stand for stem-cell research like Nancy Reagan or for children's health care like Hillary Clinton or talk publicly about taboo subjects like Betty Ford. Like Laura Bush and Melania Trump, Mrs. Bush may have said things, but never actually used their power to convince their husbands' and their administration's to take their viewpoints seriously. Less charitably, Mrs. Bush was a prop to make her husband and son's administrations seem kinder and gentler than they actually were to the poor and to our nation's students. She was a clever woman, complicated and ambitious, born into immense wealth that oftentimes insulated her from the changing times, and who represented a retrograde feminism that nonetheless found a home in the women's movement. Nonetheless, she made an impossibly large mark on American culture for a time, and lived long enough to see a Republican administration more chaotic and hateful than one that ever bore her last name. I doubt history will have much time for Mrs. Bush other than as a footnote, but unlike most First Ladies, she presented a conundrum, easy-to-like but difficult-to-explain-why as you got below the surface of her public persona. Mrs. Bush once said "Believe in something larger than yourself...get involved in the big ideas of your time"...if there's any hope the generation she spoke to at Wellesley, and future female graduates that come after them will continue to heed that advice even if Mrs. Bush rarely did.