First Ladies and Feminism: Laura Bush as Advocate for Women's and Children's Rights

Article excerpt

This essay focuses on the strategic use of feminist discourse in Laura Bush's six speeches between November 17, 2001 and May 21, 2002 about the rights of women and children in Afghanistan. I propose that Bush's use of the ideographs (women and children) and (rights) draws upon two traditions of feminism, using liberal feminist ideals of women's rights to education, health, and independence in concert with a traditional understanding of womanhood associated with maternal feminism.

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When the United States' search for Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network in fall of 2001 focused on Afghanistan, the stories of Afghan women reached an international audience largely for the first time. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (2001) noted, "We didn't really know how women were being treated until it was brought out in the news accounts. For five years, girls have been denied education in that country." As one of the public figures immediately responsible for encouraging the American public to support President George W. Bush's "War on Terror" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, First Lady Laura Bush was an integral part of the media campaign focusing on women's rights in Afghanistan. This media campaign included six speeches given by Laura Bush, numerous interviews given by important figures such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, and documentaries and "special reports" about women in Afghanistan shown on the national news networks (Rosenberg, 2002). Although Laura Bush's primary role during this media campaign was to provide a justification for the war against terrorism, Bush also used her speeches to bring a feminist issue to the center of U.S. foreign policy. This essay focuses on the strategic use of feminist discourse in Bush's speeches, for it is through an analysis of Bush's "feminism" that we can see the ways in which discourse on women's rights can at times work to uphold a conservative political vision. I propose that Bush's use of the ideographs (women and children) and (rights) draws upon two traditions of feminism, using liberal feminist ideals of women's rights to education, health, and independence in concert with a traditional understanding of womanhood associated with maternal feminism. The combination of these discourses results in a particularly powerful argument for limited rights for Afghan women outside of the home while maintaining a traditional understanding of women's roles in Afghan society. Bush's rhetoric is unique precisely because of her blending of liberal and maternal feminism, although her rhetoric remains shaped by the role of the first lady and thus is similar in some aspects to previous first ladies' rhetoric. The analysis proceeds in four sections. First, I situate Laura Bush's rhetoric within the context of her position as a first lady. Second, I discuss Bush's advocacy of the rights of women and children in terms of previous first ladies' feminist discourse. Third, I move to an ideographic analysis of the ways in which Bush's main ideograph, (women and children) interacts with its main supporting ideograph, (rights). Finally, I conclude by offering a discussion of the impact of Laura Bush's feminism on women's rights in the United States and abroad.

Drawing on Traditions of Womanhood: Laura Bush and Social Advocacy

On November 17, 2001, Laura Bush became the first First Lady to deliver a speech in the time slot usually reserved for the Presidential Radio Address (Wertheimer, 2004b, p. 452). Bush's address focused on the plight of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and drew a connection between the abuses suffered by women and the terrorist organizations sheltered by the Taliban. Bush's speech was applauded by a wide variety of critics, including feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Melanne Verveer, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton staff member, but not all responses were entirely positive (Wertheimer, 2004b, p. 453). As Elisabeth Bumiller (2001) reports

   Critics lost no time in pointing out that this was the very same
   White House that has banned aid to international groups that
   even discuss abortion as a family planning option. …