A week before the historic election of 2008, a small group of historians and journalists was invited to the White House to chat and lunch with First Lady Laura Bush. Organized by the Office of First Lady, this event was intended to unveil renovations made to the nation’s house by Mrs. Bush. And as planned, Laura Bush gave a personal tour of the Lincoln bedroom and other “family rooms” to this select group.
But it was also clear that her office wanted these professional writers and scholars to know something of the work that Laura Bush had done as First Lady. This impressive list of projects encompasses domestic causes from historic preservation to Katrina relief as well as international efforts, including the United Nations Literacy Decade, fighting AIDS in Africa, and bringing breast care awareness to the Middle East. It is not an exaggeration to say that people, many of them women and children, are alive because of her.
The extent of the good work that Laura Bush did for the country and the world would surprise many Americans, even the most fervent Bush supporter or Republican Party devotee. A close look at the specifics of her accomplishments shows that hers is the legacy of a lady. Not just a capital “L” First Lady, but the kind of lady that generations of mothers and grandmothers modeled for, as well as inculcated in, their daughters.
The role of lady takes all of the human values and qualities that our culture labels as “feminine” (such as peacefulness, kindness and nurturance) and elevates them. Laura Bush’s legacy illustrates those feminine values in action. Her care for women and children, her focus on healing bodies, uplifting minds and soothing hearts truly showed her to be our First Lady.
However, the essence of “ladyhood” is effacement, always putting others before one’s self, whether that means not taking the last cookie or putting strangers at ease by finding a common topic of conversation. Ironically, Laura Bush’s unwillingness to put herself forward, to take credit to “show off,” as my mother would say is also what makes her a lady. And there is an element of sadness in that realization; it means Americans might not have appreciated her when we had her.
Our new First Lady, Michelle Obama, is from a later generation, when little girls didn’t necessarily grow up to be ladies; they became women. Women do a lot of unladylike things, such as speak truth to power, which rather than diffuse conflict (a lady’s first priority) tends to stir up trouble. Still, like many of us, Mrs. Obama undoubtedly retains some of her earlier “lady training,” beyond such rules such as never offering a creamer handle-first, and never eating in white gloves. Rather, her record demonstrates that she prizes the larger lessons of ladyhood: empathy, sensitivity to the needs and emotions of others and the impulse to make life calm and peaceful.
The difference that we 21st-century citizens can make (including Mrs. Obama) is to take the Legacy of Ladies, First and otherwise, out of its seemingly private sphere and make it the core of our national mission. Earnest consideration of Laura Bush’s legacy means that we appreciate an agenda valuing health and wellness, caring and yes, let’s say it? love. Efforts that include Mrs. Bush’s outreach to people across the world should not be part of a “behind the scenes” diplomatic activity they should be center stage.
When your mother admonished, “Act like a lady!” she really meant, “Please remember you are sharing this space with others! Don’t intrude on them. What you can do to make things more pleasant for everyone?”
That’s not a bad way to start constructing a national policy.
Catherine Allgor, a writer for the History News Service, is a professor of history and a Presidential Chair at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of "A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation" (2006).