The nation found itself in a state of mourning on Tuesday, April 17. Former First Lady Barbara Bush passed away after battling Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and congestive heart failure. As wife of former President George H.W. Bush and the mother of former President George W. Bush, she was remembered by both politicians and civilians alike for being a bold, down to earth, and elegant first lady. She was an advocate for public service and was particularly devoted to the causes of children’s literacy and the AIDS epidemic. The outpouring of condolences from people around the world speak not only to Bush’s character and role in American society, but also to the impact of former first ladies on America.
While there has unfortunately never been a female president, the office of first lady has served as a platform for strong women to elicit change. Over the course of 45 presidencies, the office of first lady has changed drastically, with women taking on a more political and socially active role. Barbara Bush served as a perfect example of this evolution. Her commitment to charitable causes proved to be so central to her legacy that she was often called, “The First Lady of Literacy.” Not only did she advocate for the cause as it related to civilian organizations, but she also played an integral role in the passage of the National Literacy Act of 1991.
She was a champion for many of those who were at risk in America. During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Bush advocated for those struggling with the disease and tried to expel prejudices and stigmas that were associated with its presumed spread through human interaction. At her funeral, she was lauded by the musician Bono for her work and for influencing her son, the 43rd president, to continue the fight against AIDS in Africa.
While the role of president is typically wrapped up in political controversy, first ladies are often able to connect with the American public and nations around the world in a way that is less politically charged but still just as important for enacting social change. A former secret service agent who worked with the Bush administration recently said in an article for CNN that Barbara Bush’s code name “tranquility” was a perfect choice given her calm demeanor and ability to connect with people.
Three former first ladies and current first lady Melania Trump attended Barbara Bush’s funeral service. Their presence, as well as their actions while they were in office, can be seen as a testament to a continuation of first ladies serving their country just as Bush did. Most recently, Michelle Obama left a legacy of incredible service and inspiration. Her advocacy focused on nutrition as well as women’s rights and empowerment, spearheading causes such as Let Girls Learn. During her time in office, Obama also proved to be an accessible first lady, being very active in the media and being a guest on a number of talk shows such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
What was once a role limited to the domestic sphere, the title of first lady has evolved to mean so much more than simply wife to the president. Barbara Bush serves as perfect example of this. Her impact on the American public not only through her advocacy for AIDS and literacy, but also through her graceful disposition and the example she set for other first ladies, has left a mark on the United States that can never be erased.