Laura Bush: Should first ladies work outside the White House?

January 30, 2014

Should first lady be a salaried position?

Former first lady Laura Bush doesn’t think so.

“The real question is should they be able to work for a salary at the job that they already had,” Bush told CSPAN in a wide-ranging interview that will air as part of the network’s series on the image and influence of First Ladies.  “That’s what we’ll have to come to terms with: Should she have a career during the years her husband is president in addition to serving as first lady?”

The last three first ladies have advanced degrees. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are lawyers. Bush has a master’s in library science.

When a woman is elected president, Bush said she could imagine a male presidential spouse continuing his professional career. So why wouldn’t a first lady do the same?

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Bush’s point raises a larger question that has been debated by some feminists who had hoped the current first lady would retain her professional career. Other feminists would like to see Obama more involved in shaping policy — in the way Hillary Clinton worked on health care during her husband’s administration.

Before her husband was elected to higher office, Michelle Obama was the family’s primary breadwinner and worked as a health care executive. In her years in the White House, the Ivy League-educated Obama has called herself “mom-in-chief” and focused on raising her two daughters.

In the tradition of first ladies, she has taken on the responsibilities of the role, which include hostessing and representing the nation. Obama has similarly followed precedent and selected signature issues, including lowering rates of childhood obesity, helping military families and increasing the number of young adults who enroll in college.

It is likely Michelle Obama would not agree with Bush’s assessment on the role of first lady and work. Obama has called being first lady a job, and has joked that she has the better deal when compared with her husband because of her ability to focus squarely on the issues that she is most passionate about.

On one point the two first ladies are in full agreement: “There are plenty of perks,” Bush said. “The chef. I miss the chef.”

Michelle Obama, also no fan of cooking, has praised the White House chefs, too.

And, of course, any future first lady who continued her fulltime professional career would surely need to keep the chefs.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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