OPINION: A first lady's podium can be a catalyst for positive change
© Greg Nash

First ladies throughout history have had an influence on the times in which they have lived. Their uncodified role presents challenges and opportunities to shape this unique platform with their own individual character and personality. As the nation’s new first fady, Melania Trump is well-positioned to leverage her unique perspective and engage on issues affecting our country.

There are insights to be learned from both her predecessors and her global peers. Hostess, teammate, champion and policy advocate — first ladies have embraced policy and political matters as well as traditional social roles, leaving their mark not only on the office, but on the country and world as well. And in times when it is needed most.

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As our nation’s first presidential spouse, Martha Washington had the burden of setting precedent as she began life in a new role in a new nation. Through the prism of the era in which she lived and served, she rose to the challenge of her time including gathering diverse groups of people for discussion which she believed was critical to participatory democracy.

 

Standing on her shoulders, Mrs. Washington’s successors have used this unelected yet prominent platform to shape societal attitudes and advocate for important issues. As detailed in the George W. Bush Institute’s new report, "A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies", their influence, convening authority, high visibility and “soft power” uniquely position first ladies to have an impact on both issues of personal interest as well as advancing the administration’s agenda.

For example, one of our most outgoing first ladies, was in fact, afraid to give speeches. In high school, Lady Bird Johnson purposely allowed her grades to slide to ensure she would not have to give a graduation speech. Yet, as a campaign spouse, Mrs. Johnson at one point traveled more than 35,000 miles delivering her stump speech when her husband was running as vice president with President Kennedy. Later as first lady, Mrs. Johnson undertook a historic four-day, 1,628-mile campaign trip through eight southern states to champion civil rights equality.

Laura Bush entered the White House with more preparation than most of her predecessors, having watched her mother-in-law in the role. As a teacher and librarian well versed on the issue of education reform that she worked on as first lady of Texas, she fully expected to work on education as first lady of the United States. But no amount of prior knowledge could prepare her for the unexpected turns of events that ultimately determined the missions she undertook.

As first lady, Mrs. Bush had a strong influence on the global human rights agenda. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, her attention turned to Afghanistan and the advocacy of women and girls in the country after years of brutal treatment by the Taliban regime. She made three trips there, becoming only the second first lady in history to visit an active war zone, and continues to be their champion.

Lesser known is what Laura Bush did to aid the Burmese people, most of which had to be done in secret. But by the fall of 2006, she could no longer remain publicly silent. She convened a panel on Burma at the United Nations, she met with refugees from Burma at the White House, and when she watched the August 2007 Burmese army crackdown on Buddhist monks on the small television in her office in the White House Residence, she called the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and asked him to act.

In 2008, she became the first American first lady to conduct a press conference in the White House press briefing room exposing how the military dictatorship regime in Burma denied humanitarian relief after a devastating cyclone. That year she also toured Burmese refugee camps and border lands in Thailand and accepted an invitation to Capitol Hill by the Senate Women’s Bipartisan Caucus on Burma to advocate on behalf of Burmese human rights and the release of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Internationally, Clementine Churchill, wife to the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, was an integral influence during and after World War II. Despite the lack of a formal role, Mrs. Churchill considered herself a counterpart and adviser to her husband, stepping in to assist in engaging the public or when political affairs went awry. From standing on rooftops to direct the fire brigade during the Blitz to encouraging women to enter the workforce and support the war effort, Mrs. Churchill met the challenge of her position during some of the most tumultuous times in modern history.

In Namibia, Monica Geingos is leveraging her background in finance to combat longstanding inequality and cyclical poverty. Describing her approach “to listen, to facilitate, to advocate,” Rula Ghani is elevating the voices of women and girls across Afghanistan.

Regardless of region or era, every first lady reminds us we don’t know a first lady’s capacity until she serves in the office and history calls her to action.

When announcing that she will focus first on her family before setting a platform strategy, Mrs. Trump has demonstrated she will “stay true to herself” as she navigates this new role. However, regardless of her approach, she will be tested.

And like her international peers and American predecessors, she has a podium to make a difference. From women’s empowerment to combatting cyberbullying, her work as first lady presents an opportunity to create change, one that serves both our country and those we engage with abroad.

Anita McBride served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. She is now a women’s initiative fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and an executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is deputy director of the women’s initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.