Spouse Calls: The woman in The White House
May 11, 2008
There’s a lot of talk lately about the possibility of a woman in The White House.
Why all the fuss? There has always been a woman in The White House.
From Martha to Laura, First Ladies of the United States have supported their respective Georges, while caring for children, planning dinner parties for world leaders, occasionally making the morning talk show circuit and managing the country’s most famous household. (Yes, I know Martha didn’t live in The White House — or appear on “The Today Show” — but I couldn’t leave her out.)
Among so many responsibilities, is there room for a supportive spouse’s own pursuits? That sounds like a question many military spouses ask themselves. How does the spouse of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces find that balance?
I had an opportunity to ask the First Lady, Mrs. Laura Bush.
“The responsibilities and opportunities I have because my husband is President are enjoyable and fulfilling,” Mrs. Bush said by e-mail. “As many military spouses know well, it is an honor to serve alongside those who serve our country. Doing so often opens doors to new experiences that we might not have had otherwise.”
Mrs. Bush said that being First Lady has given her the opportunity to raise awareness of subjects important to her, including women’s health issues, like breast cancer and heart disease.
“It has been touching to receive letters from people who recognized that they were having a heart attack because they heard me talk about women’s risk of heart disease,” she said. Mrs. Bush serves as Ambassador for The Heart Truth, a campaign to raise awareness of heart disease in women.
That was the topic in February when she took over the mike for one of the president’s weekly radio addresses. In fact, she was the first First Lady to make the president’s radio address in September of 2001.
I asked about other groundbreaking events of her tenure. Mrs. Bush’s answers reflected her interests as an educator. She mentioned traveling to Afghanistan in 2005, where she met women at the Teacher Training Institute at Kabul University; and The White House Conference on Global Literacy in 2006. This conference, she said, brought together ministers of education, literacy experts and first ladies from many countries.
“Literacy is the building block of all education, so it is vital to addressing the challenges facing our world,” Mrs. Bush said. “When you educate a mother, you educate her family. And research shows that educated women raise better-nourished, healthier families.”
When her husband was governor of Texas, she initiated the Texas Book Festival, so the next step was a natural one when she became First Lady.
“As a former librarian and teacher, reading is a great joy of mine and I have loved working with the Library of Congress to host the National Book Festival,” she said. The festival brings together popular authors with thousands of readers each year.
She mentioned this as one of the most rewarding of her involvements as First Lady, alongside the Helping America’s Youth initiative, which she leads.
Researching this column made me more aware of the First Lady’s activities: One week she was in Africa; another in Mexico; she spoke in Texas and New York; the Pope came for a visit; she recently wrote a book and planned a wedding with daughter Jenna; this week, she invited military spouses to The White House in honor of Military Spouse Appreciation Day.
While writing an e-mail to the First Lady’s deputy press secretary, Julie Adams, I heard Mrs. Bush’s voice on the radio, fielding questions from the White House press corps about events in Myanmar.
The life of the First Lady, I told Julie, reminds me of a quote about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, “except backwards and in high heels.”
Like military spouses, Laura Bush has a move in her future, as her husband’s second term ends. Also like us, she said she will miss the friends she leaves behind, but she plans to maintain involvement in projects she cares most about.
“The issues that shape my work today will remain the focus of my efforts in the coming years. I will continue to work on literacy and education, especially global literacy and the gender discrimination that has denied an education to many women from around the world,” said the current woman in The White House.
Terri Barnes is a military wife, mom and writer. She lives in Germany. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see the Spouse Calls blog here.