Former First Ladies Are Now Using Their Gendered Role for Good

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 25: (L-R) First lady Michelle Obama, former first lady Laura Bush, former first lady Hillary Clinton, former first lady Barbara Bush and former first lady Rosalynn Carter are introduced during the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. The Bush library, which is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University, with more than 70 million pages of paper records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails and four million digital photographs, will be opened to the public on May 1, 2013. The library is the 13th presidential library in the National Archives and Records Administration system.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, the late Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter at the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Over the course of two days this week, all four living former first ladies came out against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border in an effort to deter them from coming in the first place.

The meatiest criticism came from a rather unlikely source: Laura Bush, a Republican, who has generally avoided taking hardline political stances. “This zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” she wrote in a Sunday Washington Post op-ed. “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso.”

Michelle Obama quote-tweeted Bush’s tweet of her column, adding, “Sometimes truth transcends party.” Hillary Clinton quote-tweeted Bush, too, and on Monday slammed the policy for “treat[ing] frightened children as a means to a political end.” She also responded to Jeff Sessions’ Bible-backed defense of the policy with her own interpretation of the text: “Jesus said ‘suffer the little children unto me;’ he did not say, ‘let the children suffer.’” Not to be left out, Rosalynn Carter released a statement that said the practice of “removing children from their parents’ care” is “disgraceful and a shame to our country.”

That we are witnessing the rare occasion of American first ladies coming out as a unified political bloc testifies to the dire personal and emotional stakes at hand. To many, the images of toddlers watching border agents pat down their parents and the sounds of children wailing and sobbing after being taken from their relatives place this issue beyond run-of-the-mill policy debate and into the realm of moral imperative. First ladies who could justify or ignore the deportations of parents and caging of asylum-seeking migrants that happened during their husbands’ administrations cannot justify or ignore a system of federally-organized kidnapping.

Clinton’s statement was unsurprising—it hardly seems appropriate to reduce her role in public life to that of wifedom by lumping her in with the other first ladies after her historic presidential campaign. Obama’s was slightly less so—in the recent past, she has gently advocated for progressive policies and against many facets of Trumpism. But while she was in office, she deliberately focused her efforts on the world’s least objectionable issues: vegetables, exercise, and the wellbeing of military families.

Still, Bush’s statement, a thoughtful essay that included data about the lingering physical trauma observed in survivors of U.S. Japanese internment camps, stood out for its bravery. Though she risks little by opposing a very unpopular policy, the pointed piece veered from her carefully constructed public persona. In the White House, she played the loyal wife and mild-mannered librarian who rarely said anything worth getting riled up about. (The notable exception was when she said Roe v. Wade should stand, a departure from her husband’s position.) By coming out of political retirement to stand against the separation of migrant families, Bush is saying that this issue shouldn’t be political at all—that it’s a family-values issue, not an immigrant-rights one.

The traditional role of the first lady has felt outdated for generations, and still, every inhabiter of the unofficial office—including Clinton and Obama—has capitulated to various extents to the demeaning forced-domesticity of the office. They’ve chosen china, submitted cookie recipes to Family Circle, and played hostess to White House visitors. They have been evaluated, for better or for worse, by their ability to play America’s mom.

With their public campaign against family separation, the first ladies can marshal that maternal role toward their own ends, appealing to the vaguely unfeminist idea that mothers know best when it comes to children. Bush, especially, is brilliantly cashing in on the even-tempered, morally upright image she’s maintained, which lends extra credibility to her apolitical pleas. In a country that still expects female political spouses to act as glorified homemakers, the best thing they can do, short of running for office, is use those expectations for good. With state-sponsored child abuse happening on the border, there may be no better time to spend that gendered capital than now.