First Lady Steps Forward as Women's Advocate

Jan. 18, 2006 — -- First lady Laura Bush is stepping forward with her own political voice on women's and children's issues, a far departure from her role during the president's first term.

This week, Bush is visiting Africa, including leading a U.S. delegation to Liberia to attend the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female president elected in Africa. As on many of her recent trips, the first lady is speaking out on issues that are important to her to improve conditions around the world.

Bush has broadened her focus on education, her trademark issue, to push equal opportunities for women in areas where they often have second-class status, including Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.

It was the jarring accounts of severe repression and brutality against women in Afghanistan that piqued her interest in women's lives abroad. "I think that what happened to me really happened also to the other people in the United States," Bush told The Associated Press during a four-day swing through West Africa, a trip that ends today.

"After Sept. 11, when we all looked at Afghanistan and saw the oppression of women there, it awakened a lot of people to the plight of women around the world," she said.

A Changing Role

During President Bush's first term, the first lady kept more of a low profile, and many saw this as her strength. During her husband's second campaign for president, she was pegged as his "secret weapon" and traveled the country stumping for him. She took just two solo trips to Europe during the first term but already has made four trips abroad in this term.

Bush was more outspoken than usual during her May 2005 visit to Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The trip was designed to promote freedom, education, and the role of women, along with America's image in a part of the world where animosity runs high. She said, though, that the overriding message she took home was that people want the United States to get involved in the peace process.

She told ABC News' Charles Gibson that she hoped the trip was a way to reach out to Muslims. "I came here for a lot of reasons," she said, "and each step of building democracy, each step of women's suffrage takes a long time."

Bush took a July 2005 trip to Africa with her 23-year-old daughters where they visited a Catholic-run AIDS prevention and treatment center and a social services organization for the working poor. She also joined her husband on a November trip to Asia.

"I would say there's a B plot that's been going on with Laura Bush that maybe people haven't been noticing," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian and student of America's first ladies. By highlighting inequality among women living in traditionally male-dominated cultures, she's created what Anthony calls a kind of "international feminism."

The change is noticeable at home, too. After becoming more comfortable in public, Bush made a rousing, comedic speech at the annual White House Correspondents' dinner in the spring.

"George always says he's delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney. He's usually in bed by now," she said. "I'm not kidding.

"I said to him the other day, 'George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later,'" she said, stirring laughter throughout the crowd of journalists, government and military officials, and celebrities.

Witnessing and Making History

During this week's trip, Bush applauded Johnson-Sirleaf's swearing-in and cited her as an example for young women everywhere, someone who rose to prominence through hard work and a belief in democracy and education.

"The question we must answer now is: How do we nurture the development of the next generation of women leaders in Africa?'" Bush asked in prepared remarks Wednesday. "The answer begins with education."

At stops in Ghana and Nigeria, the first lady visited AIDS treatment facilities and highlighted a U.S.-backed program that provides millions of textbooks to African students.

Ritu Sharma, director of Women's Edge Coalition, which oversees how U.S. international aid programs work for women, applauded Bush for talking about empowering women, but she worries it's just part of a diplomacy campaign to burnish America's image abroad. Sharma said funding was needed to back up Bush's words.

Those close to the first lady say she believes fervently in her causes. While she's not the type to join a women's rights march, she gets her work done with a "velvet hammer," said Noelia Rodriguez, the first lady's former director of communications.

Her advisers say privately that while she's stepped up her international travel, she hasn't turned her back on her beloved domestic projects -- fostering literacy and preventing young boys and girls from choosing lives of crime and drugs.

There's no second-term makeover under way for Bush, they say, and she is not being sent out to do public events to score political points with women voters -- she is genuinely interested in the issues she supports.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.