Barbara Bush, A True Feminist

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Barbara Bush was laid to rest in Houston on Saturday. Here in Maine, a memorial service for Mrs. Bush will take place in Kennebunkport, a spot she and her husband put on the map as its long-time summer residents.

Barbara Bush meant so much to Maine, from her folksy ways to philanthropy, which includes her promotion of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland, a place my own children have spent time in. Mrs. Bush not only lent her name (and untold donations) to the hospital, she visited one or two times a year. When she did, Mrs. Bush the literacy advocate always read stories to the children.

Recollections about her time in Maine have been re-told all week since her death last Tuesday. Another story about her time in New England has received plenty of play – a commencement address she was asked to deliver at Wellesley College in 1990.

First came the protest – yes, even 28 years ago, there were college students wanting to silence voices. Actually, the 150 students who objected to Mrs. Bush’ invitation were not concerned about what she would say, but who she was:

Simply, a wife and mother.

The students complained that Mrs. Bush’s only compelling credential was that she was married to President George H.W. Bush.

A petition was started, including the words:  “Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse.” The protest garnered national attention. Was feminism being challenged by Mrs. Bush’s presence?

It depends on your version of feminism. Is Mrs. Bush less credible because she was only a wife and mother? It is the same nonsensical attitude that continues today, if not more prevalent.

Mrs. Bush showed up at Wellesley and wowed them. You can read the transcript yourself (which also includes remarks from Raisa Gorbachev). I’ll highlight three points of Mrs. Bush: 

One was advocating for a cause, and the simple necessity of reading and writing:

“Get involved in some of the big ideas of our time. I chose literacy because I honestly believe that if more people could read, write, and comprehend, we would be that much closer to solving so many of the problems that plague our nation and our society.”

The second point is the one getting the most attention this past week. It is sage advice, especially for college graduates who think their future professional accomplishments will be so important.

“Cherish your human connections:  your relationships with family and friends. 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. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”

We have heard that wisdom presented in other forms. But it is always true.

The third highlight of her speech is spot-on. Here is a woman connected with people of power. She is talking to graduates of a good school, some of whom will become so-called movers and shakers. But Mrs. Bush sees through that. One can image her opinion of our 24/7 TV news, with its constant emphasis on politics, as if political movements determine who we are.

There is something more important, even if it’s not newsworthy. Mrs. Bush:

“But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change:  Fathers and mothers, if you have children — they must come first.

“You must read to your children, hug your children, and you must love your children. Your success as a family … our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”

Wives and mothers can be true feminists (and real men will support them).

Barbara Bush appeared to be a rock. Surely, she knew suffering (having lost a 3-year-old daughter, Robin, to leukemia in 1953), but she also knew love, married 73 years to the same man, and raising a family.

Who cares about politics when we’re talking real power?


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.