The two first ladies sat side by side under stage lights. Both Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, were relaxed and cross-legged. They turned toward each other often as they spoke of the exclusive kinship they share.
“We were elected by one man,” Bush quipped, as Obama laughed.
“Right, right,” Obama said.
“And you can’t be fired,” added Cokie Roberts, who moderated a nearly 50-minute conversation between the two women Wednesday during the day-long spousal program, which was part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit events held at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday.
Their easy banter, which soon turned to the serious issue of gender equality, also provided a good moment to reflect on the way modern women navigate their tradition-bound role. In other words, what kind of power and responsibility does the woman elected by the man elected president have these days?
According to Obama and Bush, plenty. Together publicly for the second time in just over a year, the women again pushed the notion that spouses of world leaders are leaders in their own right. Last summer, they were together in Tanzania where the Bush Institute hosted a forum for Africa’s first ladies. When the White House began planning to invite African heads of state to the Washington, Obama’s staff reached out to Bush to participate in its program.
Their comity infused their conversation, which was full of agreement and compliments and, yes, feminism.
“Until we prioritize our girls and understand that they are as important and their education is as important as the education of our sons, then we will have lots of work to do,” Obama said. Referring to advice she gave a group of young men from Africa recently, she said: “One of the things I asked the young men is that you have to be introspective and ask yourselves whether you truly believe that women can be your equal.”
Bush agreed, thinking back to her days advocating for women in Afghanistan.
“Mrs. Obama is right — in fact, one person said to me one time, why are you working with women, it’s men who have the problem,” she said to laughter.
Obama has spent her summer speaking to students and advocating for issues, such as ending homelessness among veterans, while also giving speeches that raise money for Democratic candidates and sharing her views on women’s empowerment.
Bush is leading a robust post-White House life, helping to build the George W. Bush Presidential Center and developing a first ladies initiative there that aims to help women harness the power of the role.
Another former first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was not in attendance at the summit, may be eyeing another run for the presidency. And as Bush has hinted, having a woman sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office could totally upend the first spouse role.
Bush told C-SPAN last year that she thought Americans should begin asking whether presidential partners should still be expected to stop working when their partners were elected president. Would a man really stop working as a lawyer and begin the life of a hostess and advocate if his wife were elected president?
“That’s what we’ll have to come to terms with,” Bush said then. “For certainly a first gentleman might continue to work whatever he did if he was a lawyer, or whatever, so I think that's really the question we should ask, is should she have a career during those years that her husband is president in addition to serving as first lady.”
As it stands, Obama and Bush encouraged the fellow first ladies in the audience to be conscious of the power and platform they have — even as is tradition in the United States — they have to give up their careers. As spouses of leaders, they are themselves leaders, both women said.
“You look at yourself and see what your expertise is,” Bush suggested.
Obama added, “I have found that I’ve been most effective when I am uniquely authentic. That means I have to really believe passionately in the causes I take on.”
And don’t worry about blowback, both agreed.
“But on the other hand, I think anyone who’s in a leadership position of any sort knows that you’re going to be criticized and a target, really, for criticism,” Bush said.
“That’s absolutely true,” Obama continued. “And that’s really the role of leadership. It’s not about amassing power; it’s taking some of those hits and continuing to do the work, even when it’s painful and sometimes unappreciated.”
Even when it’s your spouse who ran for office.