Laura Bush entered the White House with more preparation than most of her predecessors.
She served as Texas first lady and also watched how her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, filled the first lady role during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
“I’d slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, in the Queen’s Bedroom,” Laura Bush said. “I had an advantage that no other American first lady — except for maybe Louisa Adams — had had, in that I knew so much about what I was stepping into.”
Still, no amount of preparation could prevent unexpected turns of history from taking her to places and putting her on missions she had not anticipated.
“I made a sixth-grade report on Afghanistan,” she said. “I never would have expected to visit Afghanistan.”
Today, her ongoing mission is to help women around the world, including those serving as first ladies in other nations.
As part of that work, the George W. Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative recently posted the study A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies at bushcenter.org, along with video of Bush and Cheri Blair — the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — introducing the report at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University.
The research, conducted with the International Center for Research on Women and supported by Exxon Mobile, profiled 14 first ladies. The report examined first ladies’ expanding potential to provide leadership and influence despite the challenges that come with serving in roles that are still loosely defined.
“You really do to some extent have to make it up as you go along,” Blair said.
Blair worked as a self-employed attorney while juggling the demands of family and the hosting expectations that came with living at 10 Downing St. in London.
“There had never been a working spouse of a prime minister before, and that in itself caused interesting issues,” she said. “The first thing I discovered was that the system couldn’t cope with the idea that I might actually have something else to do.”
Blair credits Hillary Clinton with providing her with great advice early on: “It is very important when you decide what you want to do with this platform that you are true to yourself and do something that you care about, because it will be more authentic and therefore you are more likely to achieve something.”
For Blair that has meant championing economic opportunities for women, especially in developing nations where it may be uncommon for women to work outside the home or to own businesses.
“I know a woman who has her own resources, who can have her own money … can make some choices for herself and her children,” Blair said. “She can decide that her daughter should continue in school and not be forced into an early forced marriage. She can decide that her children should get immunized … she can make choices to leave abusive relationships.”
For Laura Bush, a background as an educator and librarian led her to begin her focus as first lady on literacy.
“Of course when I started I did things I expected to do, like start the National Book Festival,” she said. “I had started the Texas Book Festival.”
But after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, her attention turned to Afghanistan, which she describes as “a failed country, because half the population was left out.”
Her ongoing work to increase opportunities for women in Afghanistan has expanded to include women from Burma, Tunisia, and other places.
Blair also, through the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, continues efforts to elevate women.
“When we see women leaders in the community, it changes how the community sees women,” she said.