I watched Barbara Bush's Wellesley College speech on the television set in my office. It was a damn fool thing to do. I should have watched instead in the home of a poor woman, or one of modest means, and noted her reaction when the First Lady advised women to settle the conflict between career and family in favor of family. I think the set would have clicked off with disgust -- as, probably, the woman set off for work.
It's not that I disagree with Mrs. Bush. The older I get, the more I see and read, the more I question such concepts as "quality time" for children. It seems to me "quality time" is any time a kid needs a parent, particularly a mother. The family ought to come first. No doubt about it.
But "ought" is an aspiration. There ought not to be any divorce, either. One out of every five women ought not to be receiving some sort of poverty benefit (20.5 million women) and they ought to be earning as much as men do for the same job. White women ought not to be earning an average of $14,700 a year, black women $900 less. All these are "oughts," and they collide with the advice Mrs. Bush gave the Wellesley women.
In newspaper accounts of the speech, some of the Wellesley graduates were asked afterward what they thought. The selection of Mrs. Bush as commencement speaker had, after all, set off a row. Some 150 Wellesley women had protested, saying that the school should have honored a woman whose achievements were her own. The protesters hit the nail on the head. Would an all-male school have invited the husband of a famous woman -- Jeane Kirkpatrick's husband, for instance, or the man married to Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan? We all know the answer to that one.
Nevertheless, it seems Mrs. Bush acquitted herself nicely. Not surprising. She is a gracious, charming woman, more at home in her own skin than, say, her husband is in his. Especially when compared to the formidable and dour Raisa Gorbachev, who accompanied Mrs. Bush to Wellesley, the First Lady came off well.
But charm and grace can only take Mrs. Bush so far -- and not, as it turns out, far enough. She is, as they say, a woman of a certain age -- and a certain class as well. When she dropped out of Smith College during her sophomore year to marry and raise a family, she was not really exercising a choice. Precious few women of her generation and social class had careers in those days. That is hardly the case today.
Had Mrs. Bush been able to leap across a generational and class gulf, she might have said something extraordinary. She might, in fact, have said that she could afford not to work for a living. The Bushes, after all, reported a net worth of $2.3 million. She is not quite in a class of her own, but she is certainly in the upper class.
Most women have no such wealth. They work because, among other reasons, they simply have to. I am not referring only to single mothers but to married ones as well -- all of those who have seen their family income eroded over the last 20 years. The dirty little secret of family income in this country is that it has risen -- or kept even -- because two people instead of one are now working.
That places women in a dilemma. And their plight has been made no easier by the social policies of either the Bush administration or the Reagan administration before it. You name it, from family planning to family leave, these conservative administrations have been against it. Their message to women of all sorts has been to stay home, curl up with a copy of the Saturday Evening Post and wait, like a dog with slippers, for hubby to come home. For too many women, no one ever comes home.
Shortly before her husband's inauguration, Barbara Bush was asked what she thought of being compared to Eleanor Roosevelt -- another well-born, unglamorous but outspoken First Lady. "I wish you wouldn't say Eleanor Roosevelt," she said. "I grew up in a household that really didn't like her. My mother really despised her. So let's talk about something else."
No, let's not. Because what made Mrs. Roosevelt a great, if not the greatest, First Lady was her ability to empathize and sympathize with people who were not of her class. Her visits with sharecroppers, her forays into coal mines, were credited by Mrs. Bush's own class with what they called Franklin Roosevelt's "socialist" ideas -- radical notions such as occupational safety and a minimum wage.
Had the present First Lady had a bit more Eleanor Roosevelt in her and a bit less of her mother, she might have taught the Wellesley graduates and all of America a lesson about the contemporary plight of American women that would not, as this one will be, soon forgotten. Her speech was both graceful and charming, but many women probably missed it. They were hurrying off to work.