Media Misreads Laura Bush as Traditionalist

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Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–The press is hyping the new first lady, Laura Bush, as the “anti-Hillary,” the traditionalist versus the feminist. Not only does this construction misunderstand the entire thrust of the women’s movement, it misreads Mrs. Bush as well.

In an interview broadcast just before the inauguration, the first lady vigorously rejected the traditionalist label when Barbara Walters identified her in that way. “That’s your word, not mine,” said Laura Bush. She went on to describe herself as an “activist” first lady in Texas, who backed education and literacy programs and supported writers and artists. She also said forthrightly in another TV interview that she did not believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned–hardly the comment of a media-version “traditionalist.”

Women, including first ladies, do not fit neatly into little boxes. Hillary Clinton was indeed a policy wonk–and now is the senator from New York. But she was also a devoted mother and a woman who liked to dash in and check the centerpieces just before state dinners. She’s written a book on entertaining in the White House.

The idea of the women’s movement was not to turn all women into a one-size-fits-all model of activism. It was about choices, and today women are finding all sorts of patterns for their lives. This was made very clear by the wives of the men who ran for president and vice president this time around: an eclectic bunch.

Lynne Cheney, wife of Veep Dick Cheney, is a conservative firebrand–she was on “Crossfire” more often than her husband. A former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she holds a doctorate in literature. Though a thoroughgoing conservative, she is the very model of what feminism argued for–a woman who wouldn’t hold back from speaking in the public arena. Bill Bradley’s wife, Ernestine, is a university professor. Cindy McCain and Hadassah Lieberman, both homemakers, were effective campaigners for their husbands.

Lady Bird Johnson Was a Feminist Before the Word Was Invented

Both Tipper Gore and Laura Bush joined “family firms”–marrying into well-known political families. Tipper Gore spoke out against violent and degrading rock music and advocated for mental health. Laura Bush was a librarian and teacher for a decade before she married George W. Bush. She says the first lady she most admires is Lady Bird Johnson, the last first spouse from Texas.

Lady Bird was a feminist before the word was invented. She was a key player in running the Johnson family businesses, including broadcast stations, and was perhaps the most active environmentalist in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. She spearheaded the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, cleaning up the nation’s highways and replanting native flora and fauna. She was a strong advocate of the Head Start program.

While the modern image of first lady was set in the 1950s, when Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman were traditional women who had no interest in public policy, there’s a history of outspoken first ladies that goes back to Abigail Adams. She once wrote to her husband that he “remember the ladies” in the revolution he and his cohorts were making. That was exactly what he had no intention of doing.

“Depend on it,” he wrote, “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory … in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of master, and rather than give this up, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope that general Washington and all our heroes would fight.” (There are men on Capitol Hill today who feel that way, but they don’t say it so openly.)

Edith Wilson practically ran the country for months, making executive decisions when her husband Woodrow was crippled by a stroke. Eleanor Roosevelt may have been the most influential woman of the century, pricking her husband’s conscience on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden. In her own right, she was a United Nations delegate who worked tirelessly for human rights. Rosalynn Carter advocated for the mentally ill and Betty Ford gave her name to a center that treats addiction.

Where Laura Bush will fit in the pantheon of first ladies that runs from the feisty Abigail Adams to the more traditional women who have occupied the house on Pennsylvania Avenue is not yet known. But the early signs are that this woman who was a dedicated educator will bring enough candor and determination to her new job to warm a feminist’s heart.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.


Update

Abortion Provider Files Federal Suit for Job Loss

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Nebraska abortion provider whose Supreme Court suit overturned a vague law against so-called “partial-birth” abortions has sued the University of Nebraska and its medical center for firing him as a volunteer faculty member.

In a U.S. District Court suit filed last Wednesday in Lincoln, Neb., Dr. LeRoy Carhart claims that, in firing him, the university finally caved in to anti-abortion activists who have long demanded his removal.

“It’s really about freedom,” says Carhart’s lawyer, Sherrie Russell-Brown of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York. “Basically, the precedent they’re setting is that you can exercise your rights and potentially lose your job,” she said in a telephone interview.

Carhart was not available for comment.

Carhart, a gynecologist, performs abortions at his clinic in an Omaha suburb and donates fetal tissue for university research. He was honorary voluntary faculty in the department of pathology and microbiology, but these were not his medical specialties or subspecialties. The post adds significant prestige to a physician’s reputation.

A new university policy requires that all volunteer faculty members work in the departments of their primary specialty and Carhart was working outside of gynecology.

His lawyer, Russell-Brown, said Carhart was rebuffed when he said he wanted to be hired by another department. He was one of about 200 volunteer faculty who were sent termination notices, but many were deceased or had relocated.

Richard Wood, university vice president and general counsel, said Tuesday that Carhart’s involvement in the Supreme Court case “had no effect whatsoever” on his employment and that the new faculty policy would have been put in place regardless. The university always supported the fetal tissue research carried out with tissue donated by Carhart, Wood said in an interview.

In 1997, shortly after he challenged Nebraska’s vaguely worded law against so-called “partial-birth” abortions in federal court, Carhart was hired as a “volunteer adjunct assistant professor.” His challenge to Nebraska’s law won in federal court in 1998 and that ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in June.

The Supreme Court ruled that Nebraska’s law, and others like it, were unconstitutional because they were so vaguely worded that they could apply to virtually any legal abortion six weeks after gestation, and also the law had no exception to protect a woman’s health.

At that time, anti-abortion activists began calling for Carhart’s dismissal from the faculty. He was notified in a letter dated Sept. 12 that his position would be terminated Dec. 20.

Russell-Brown says that the publicly supported university’s action violated Carhart’s First Amendment right to free speech as well as his and his patients’ rights to privacy. The school also violated a federal statute that makes it illegal to punish someone for participating in a lawsuit, she said. The suit seeks Carhart’s reinstatement, plus compensatory and punitive damages to be decided at trial.

Russell-Brown says that she and her client believe the university devised the new policy in order to get rid of Carhart.

Wood acknowledged that many volunteers were gone or deceased and said that of about 200 volunteer faculty members who lost their positions, 30 of them had positions in departments outside their specialty.

Carhart has long been the target of anti-abortion forces. He has been evicted from buildings where he had established clinics and he has received numerous threats. In 1991, an arsonist set fire to his farm, killing 17 horses and other animals. –Sarah Stewart Taylor

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