COLUMN: Barbara Bush was not a feminist


In a March 2005 file image, Former first lady Barbara Bush listens to her son, former president George W. Bush, speak during a stop in March 2005 at the Lake Nona YMCA Family Center in Orlando, Florida. Barbara Bush died April 17, 2018, in Houston, Texas.  Tribune News Service Buy Photos

The recent death of former first lady Barbara Bush has brought many in the nation both to mourn and honor her legacy, but many narratives, while well-intentioned, are slightly inaccurate in that they celebrate Bush as being a feminist icon

It is time to analyze the difference between a woman in a powerful position and a feminist, because the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

The first undeniable fact about Bush is that she was a Republican and supported many Republican campaigns, namely Reagan and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush. 

It is inefficient and unnecessary to divide feminism by party lines, but while Republican feminists can and do exist, the legislative corpus of the Republican body is not well known for pro-women legislation. This is especially true for politicians like Reagan, whose administration was vehemently pro-life.  

There is no one true definition of feminism with a concrete list of causes telling women what they can and cannot support as far as policy, but perhaps the best place to start is with policy that supports the freedom and autonomy of women to do what they choose with their bodies.

While there are feminists who identify as pro-life, this belief goes against my views of feminism.

My definition of feminism also goes beyond supporting women, but supporting all marginalized people, as all forms of activism are connected in some way.

There is no point in being a feminist if one does not support women of color or women in the LGBT community, and that easily extends to supporting men of color and men in the LGBT community, as well as those nonconforming. A true feminist should ideally fight for the rights of every marginalized person.

This is one aspect of feminism that gets very confusing when it comes to Bush, as it brings conflicting narratives to the forefront. It brings into question what standards we must uphold for women of power and privilege.

Bush was one of Reagan’s biggest supporters, evoking a form of complicity in his racist crusade against drugs and inability to act against the AIDS crisis, causing the deaths of millions of people, namely those in the LGBT community.

At the same time, Bush played a role in addressing the stigma against AIDS by visiting patients in hospitals, effectively working to humanize them in an era that was so desperate to demonize them.

However, in Bush's 1994 memoir, in a response to Anita Hill's sexual harassment claims against Justice Clarence Thomas, Bush wrote, "It is setting a picture that anyone can testify if he or she wants and cause doubts."

It is ineffective to take a person and decide if they are wholly good or bad. People are much more complex than that. There are many positive aspects of Bush’s legacy which deserve celebration in their own right, and some of her ideas can still have a positive influence.

In 1990, she spoke at a graduation ceremony at Wellesley College and said something I particularly like: “Human connections — with spouses, with children, with friends — are the most important investments you’ll ever make." She then said, "At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

At the same time, the worth of your human connections are questionable when you do not fight for the humans that are oppressed. 

As a whole, it is impossible to label Bush as a feminist icon because of her undeniable complicity in supporting legislation, such as the reinstatement of the Mexico City policy, that harms those around the world who were far more oppressed than her, but her actions do not allow for her complete vilification, either. 

George H.W. Bush had played an integral role in securing funding for Planned Parenthood and backing Title X family planning legislation as a senator prior to his presidency. The pro-life polarization of the Republican party, as well as that of the subsequent generations of Bushes, is indicative of one of the unfortunate failure of the modern Republican party to embrace feminist social and economic policies. 

Feminism and the legacies of women in power must be further analyzed and discussed in the public light, and feminism is not powerful until it empowers every oppressed person.

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