'A Job Wellesley Done'

Their husbands had the easy job. Putting the cold war to bed is nothing compared with negotiating the conflicts of modern-day feminism. But Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbacheva did some disarming of their own in a joint commencement speech at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The First Ladies were models of diplomacy. They clasped hands and shared the stage like partners in perestroika. Gone was the "cat i fight" atmosphere that colored each meeting between Raisa and Nancy Reagan. Confronting the controversy over whether she was chosen to speak because of whom she married, Mrs Bush urged the all-woman graduating class to "respect difference [and] be compassionate" --and to remember there is more to life than a job. Then she won their hearts by suggesting that one day someone in the audience might follow in her footsteps as the president's spouse. "And I wish him well," she added, to an approving roar.

With humility and humor, Barbara Bush took on the job of reminding women--and men--that feminism is not defined by job title. The women's movement began as an effort to gain respect for women's work, whether at home or in the workplace. To make that point, Mrs. Bush offered the students a new view of the traditional senior rite of passage in which students race while rolling wooden hoops. The winner was once thought to be the first who would get married. Today's winners are said to be the first to become CEOs. "Both of those stereotypes show too little tolerance," Mrs. Bush said, suggesting instead that the winner would be the first to realize "her own personal dream," whatever it turned out to be.

As Mrs. Bush described it, her personal dream revolved around "three very special choices"--service to others, joy and cherished human connections (box). The combination has clearly worked for her. Instead of being defensive about her college-dropout, career-housewife resume, Mrs. Bush remarked to the Wellesley crowd that she knew she was the second-choice commencement speaker after Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple." Barbara sympathized with the students: "Instead you got me, known for the color of my hair."

The First Lady's speech won such accolades that a top White House official declared it "a smashing success, the real accomplishment of the summit." Watching the tears stream down some of the graduates' faces, a stunned aide marveled, "The oratory was moving, but not that moving. " In fact, Barbara has delivered the same speech several times this commencement season. It was well received, but nothing like the full gush it got at Wellesley. "One of the best commencement speeches I've ever heard," exclaimed NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. Speechwriter Ed McNally drafted the short address from conversations with Mrs. Bush as the Wellesley controversy unfolded. Several others on the staff contributed their ideas. The laugh line directed at men--"When it's your own kids, it's not called 'babysitting'"--came from an aide's personal experience. Elated staffers greeted Barbara's return to the White House with a huge sign that read, "A Job Wellesley Done."

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The women of Wellesley saluted Mrs. Bush as "a symbol of service to others," but in a letter written in purple ink asked that she "take a definitive and vocal stand" on important political issues. The First Lady is known to have more liberal views than her husband on gun control and abortion rights. But she has always put her husband first, and she's proud of it. Asked which side of a controversy she is on, she replies, "I'm on his side." It is unlikely that Barbara Bush will change her style. It is equally unlikely that she will ever submerge her identity to that of her husband, even if he is I the president.

'A Job Wellesley Done' | News