Time Capsule: Barbara Bush's Controversial 1990 Speech at Wellesley

The former First Lady's appearance drew protests from students who thought a career woman would've been more appropriate.

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With President Obama preparing to give a commencement address this spring at Barnard College, hoping in part to win over women voters, it's an opportune moment to revisit a bygone moment in the culture wars: the controversy that erupted when then-First Lady Barbara Bush was invited to keynote the 1990 graduation ceremony at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. "The conflict has centered on a protest by 150 Wellesley students who said they were 'outraged' by the selection of Mrs. Bush as the graduation speaker," The New York Times reported at the time. "They said she did not represent the type of career woman the college seeks to educate. Mrs. Bush dropped out of Smith College after two years to marry, and has been best known as a supportive wife and mother in the family of a politician."

Said the petition prepared by protesting students:

Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.

Bush did in fact end up delivering the Wellesley commencement address that year. (An interesting footnote: Gorbachev's wife attended the ceremony too, and also made remarks to the students.) Her speech is online. The following passage struck me as most interesting:   

Cherish your human connections: your relationships with family and friends. For several years, you've had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work, and, of course, that's true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer or business leader will be, you are a human being first and those human connections -- with spouses, with children, with friends -- are the most important investments you will ever make. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.
Insofar as she put forth a socially conservative message, she did so in measured language from which Rick Santorum could learn:

Maybe we should adjust faster, maybe we should adjust slower. But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children -- they must come first. You must read to your children, hug your children, and you must love your children. Your success as a family ... our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.
Those words turned out to be especially true for Bush, whose married life included not only stints as an ambassador's and president's wife but also raising six children, one of whom would serve as president and another as Florida's governor. She now has 14 grandchildren, and is 86 years old.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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