By now, most Americans have heard about the so-called Republican war on women, which has been framed as a battle waged by stodgy old white guys who want to deny women reproductive freedom. One can debate the validity of these claims, but for now, let’s give equal time to the other war on women. This one is manned not by men but by a dwindling number of women whose understanding of equality is so narrowly defined that only a certain kind of woman can be recognized as having achieved anything.
Twenty-two such women recently wrote a letter to the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum protesting an award to be given to former first lady Laura Bush. The Alice Award, which honors a woman who has helped other women, previously has gone to Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi and Olympia Snowe.
Leading the 22 women is Sonia Pressman Fuentes, co-founder of the National Organization for Women, who described her reaction upon reading that Bush was being honored: “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s not partisan. I’m not complaining that she’s a Republican.” (Because Snowe, after all, is a Republican.) “I’m complaining that she’s never done anything for women to get this award.”
To say Bush has never done anything for women suggests either willful ignorance or malicious revisionism. The soft-spoken former first lady may not have marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with her sisters to celebrate or protest. But when you live at 1600, you don’t have to. Being a first lady grants certain privileges, one of which is a bully pulpit. Bush used hers to great effect, not just by advancing women’s rights in far corners of the world but also by literally saving lives. To assert anything less is disingenuous if not dishonest. It is also an insult to a woman of whom all Americans should be proud.
I have personal knowledge of Bush’s significant efforts. While most associate her with literacy programs, she also has made important inroads for women’s health. I was among three journalists who traveled with the first lady through the Middle East in 2007 to launch a breast cancer research and treatment initiative in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. We watched as Bush met with women who whispered their secrets to her, in some cases saying for the first time the words “breast cancer.” These were women, after all, who couldn’t even get a mammogram without their husband’s permission. Even saying the word “breast” was verboten and cancer was a disease of shame. Afflicted women often were abandoned by their husbands, and their daughters deemed unsuitable for marriage.
We also watched as she met with heads of state, charming kings, sheiks and princes and helping them see the importance of women’s equality through access to health. Until Bush ventured forth on their behalf, 80 percent of women with breast cancer in the Middle East died. Now, that number is lower.
Doesn’t this qualify as helping women?
Bush also has been instrumental in helping women advance in Afghanistan through education and professional training programs she shepherds through the Bush Institute. She has used her voice to champion the plight of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently claimed the Nobel Peace Prize she won 21 years ago while under house arrest for her human rights activism.
What’s missing from these accomplishments, of course, is any mention of abortion or free contraception, the key components of feminist catechism. Perhaps these omissions are what disqualify Bush from consideration in the clouded vision of some. Reproductive freedom is surely important, but first one has to be alive — free to speak one’s conscience, protected from the killing fields of the Taliban, and rescued from a disease that ravaged women who were never treated as fully human.
These are the battles Laura Bush has chosen to fight, no less important than any other — and worthy of a Nobel of her own.