Does former first lady Laura Bush possess the feminist cred and chops to receive a prize named for one of America’s most militant suffragists —who for years was heckled, jailed and even force-fed
during a prison hunger strike to win the vote for women in 1920?
Depends whom you ask about the Alice Paul Award, which the board of the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum will give to Laura Bush in September. Since 1929, this Capitol Hill landmark has been home to the National Woman’s Party, and occasionally, to Paul herself.
One of the most vocal Bush-bashers is Sonia Pressman Fuentes, 84, who spent nearly two decades on the Sewall-Belmont board and co-founded the National Organization For Women. Now living in Sarasota, she said by phone that she helped draft a protest letter signed by more than 20 women because people were “stunned” by the selection.
“Laura Bush is not known as a champion of women’s rights. She has done little or nothing to advance American women’s equality,” the letter contended. “Her advocacy on behalf of Afghan women is commendable, but she has been conspicuously absent in every major arena of American women’s rights. Nor has she challenged her party’s anti-feminist agenda in any meaningful way. To give the Alice Award to such a partisan political figure in an election year is highly questionable. To give it to a non-feminist Republican figurehead, at a time when the Republican Party is doing its utmost to demolish women’s hard-fought rights, reflects a stunning lapse of judgment.”
The Sewall-Belmont board begs to differ. “Through Mrs. Bush’s commitment to education, health care and human rights, she has made an impact on women’s lives both at home and abroad,” executive director
Page Harrington told the Post.
"As with any high-profile public figure, some people agree and some people disagree, and any choice of honoree will never please everyone all the time," Harrington said. "Laura Bush transcends cultural, political, and geographic boundaries in her work for women’s progress."
The board rejected a proposal by Fuentes & Co. to add an honoree to share the stage with Mrs. Bush, such as Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md, the longest serving woman in Congressional history; pay equity icon Lilly Ledbetter, whose name is on the first law President Obama signed in 2009, or the or the DC Rape Crisis Center, founded 40 years ago as the nation’s first first such facility.
Sewall-Belmont program, outreach and communications manager Elisabeth Crum wouldn't discuss the failed dual-honoree move, although the Website lists several multiple winners, including two bipartisan duos: Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Me., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., last year and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., in 2007.
The protest letter aside, giving Bush the Alice Paul award created “a great deal of support,” Crum told me. “She’s an excellent choice. She’s worked on women’s rights in the US and Afghanistan, and still continues work there even though she’s no longer the first lady.”
Back in 2006, Bush told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that, "A lot of what I do internationally does have to do with women's issues, with women's rights, with the education of women and girls because it's so important and because women -- as we saw in Afghanistan -- and girls have been left out, actually forbidden to be educated."
As First Lady, Laura Bush took some heat from feminists for keeping her own counsel on hot-button issues from abortion to gay marriage.
But one can dispute that discretion is part of the White House spouse pact: Support the policies of the president you're married to or zip your lip.
Ann E.W. Stone, who heads Republicans for Choice, said Paul--"a Republican who authored the Equal Rights Amendment and got the GOP to put it into their platform, would have understood why Sewall-Belmont was honoring Laura Bush. She would have been annoyed that Laura did not speak up publicly on issues with which she disagreed with her husband, but she would have understood."
In 2010, Bush did go public while hyping her memoir, “Spoken From the Heart.” She confessed to Larry King that she disagreed with her husband on abortion and gay marriage. “I think it’s important that (Roe v. Wade) remain legal for medical reasons and other reasons.” As for gay marriage, which she said straddles a generational divide, “when couples are committed to each other, love each other, they ought to have the same sort of rights that everyone has."
I asked Fuentes if she planned to come to Capitol Hill for the Sept. 19 ceremony, and in the agit-prop spirit of Alice Paul, chain herself to the front door of the Sewall-Belmont House.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” she replied.
Annie Groer, a former Washington Post staffer and PoliticsDaily.com columnist, writes widely about politics, culture and design. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country, the Atlantic.com and Washingtonian, and she is at work on a memoir.