When Wellesley College invited Barbara Bush to speak at its 1990 graduation, protests broke out on campus. One hundred fifty students spelled out their objections in a petition to the school’s president at the time, Nannerl Keohane: “Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”
They received sympathy from an unlikely source: the then-first lady herself, who with her typical bluntness said she found their complaints “very reasonable.”
Bush dropped out of Smith College during her second year there to marry, she claimed, the first boy she had ever kissed. And from the point of view of 1990s feminism, that path could hardly have looked more retro.
“They’re 21 years old, and they’re looking at life from that perspective. I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at,” Bush said of the Wellesley students’ objections. “I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life.”
And in many ways, Bush’s life was the very definition of female empowerment. Yes, it came from privilege. But it also sprang from the core of her character. Bush’s strength — and her appeal — was her comfort with who she was. She said what she thought, let her hair go white, and rejected the glamour and excess of her predecessor, Nancy Reagan. She was as authentic as her pearls were fake.
Bush would become one of the most popular first ladies in modern history, a matriarch to a nation.
Her husband and her son were presidents. But in the Bush household, she was the one known as “the enforcer.”
The furor at Wellesley died down. Bush ended up giving the speech with Raisa Gorbachev, then the first lady of the Soviet Union, at her side.
It was a triumph.
“At the end of your life,” she told the graduating class, “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.”
“And who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse,” she added. “I wish him well!”
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.
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