First-term first ladies are often shadows to their more-important husbands, dabbling in light fare to avoid criticism and picking safe projects to shield them and their families from the inevitable slings and arrows.
The safest bet has been to keep interests close to hearth and home – the universally approved place and role of women. Thus, first lady Laura Bush, who had been a librarian, focused on reading programs and, with the Library of Congress, created the first National Book Festival.
Similarly, Michelle Obama focused on subjects close to home. As a mother who cares about nutrition – and a fitness aficionado whose buff arms became the envy of sleeveless dresses everywhere – she planted an organic garden at the White House, changed the way children eat at school and created a “Let’s Move!” campaign to get our girthsome youth off the couch and on their feet. Who could be against nutrition and fitness?
Critics are often scornful that these women aren’t using their extraordinary profiles to tackle more substantive issues. In Obama’s case, they pointed to her Princeton and Harvard Law education, suggesting that she was wasting her mind on veggies. But then, recall what happened to first lady Hillary Clinton when she dared tackle health care.
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Second terms, which are often problematic for presidents (unless they have such a week as President Barack Obama did last week), can be liberating for first ladies. In her second term, Bush became a harsh critic of the military junta in Myanmar and an advocate for jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, later turning her attentions to the women and girls of Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Recently, Michelle Obama created a “Let Girls Learn” initiative to ensure the education of adolescent girls throughout the world. Speaking Monday at a luncheon hosted by Lesley Jane Seymour, editor in chief of MORE magazine – the July/August issue of which the first lady guest-edited – Obama noted that educating girls isn’t only a humanitarian goal but also a foreign policy imperative.
A series of secretaries of state, beginning with Madeleine Albright, have made this same observation and created policies and strategies accordingly. It is a fact that countries that abuse and marginalize girls and women also tend to be home to terrorists and inflamed minds snagged on ancient histories.
Adolescent girls were specifically targeted because puberty is when many endure the atrocity of genital cutting and/or are forced into marriage and childbirth while they themselves are still children. Into slavery, in other words.
In a brilliant stroke, Obama tapped the Peace Corps as a partner. Thus, corps volunteers, working with NGOs and other nonprofits, will mentor girls and help provide support to keep them in school. The first lady is also seeking partnerships with companies, congregations and schools.
At the same time, Obama is leaning on other developed countries to join the U.S. effort. The United Kingdom and Japan are thus far on board.
But she also wants to bring the message of “Let Girls Learn” to young people in this country. “Because I want kids here in the U.S. to know about these girls around the world, and I want them to be inspired by their passion and determination, to reignite that hunger in our kids here.”
Perhaps it would help them to see girls in classrooms in Africa as Obama described them – gathered in bare concrete rooms with little more than a chalkboard and rickety desks. “And they’re thrilled to be there.”
Having the U.S. lead this initiative is a giant step for girls in need, as well as for our first lady, who seems to have found her voice and her own power to change the world.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker