We can learn many things from former first lady Barbara Bush, but perhaps more than anything, her life is a poignant reminder that greatness comes in many different forms.
When today’s young women think of role models, they are more likely to picture Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Beyonce, or Serena Williams than they are to recall the quiet confidence of Mrs. Bush. It’s no wonder, because our culture’s messaging to today’s young women is, essentially, that they should emulate men.
In an acclaimed TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg identifies the low percentage of women leading governments, corporations and nonprofits as a “real problem.” While she was careful to validate the choice of some women to work full-time in the home, her conclusion seems to assume that surely there are just as many women as men who want to make it to the “top.”
We should be cautious about using statistics of female CEOs and heads of state to determine whether women have “arrived.” The fact is, there are still plenty of women who simply seek to “arrive” somewhere different altogether.
For them, saying “no” to a full-time career, or to the path that leads to the “top” of their profession, enables them to say “yes” to something they believe is better. Often, that “better” is having more time and energy for family and volunteer work.
Barbara Bush is a shining example of a smart, talented woman who opted out of chasing a career in order to better anchor the family that went on to impact America in so many ways. Her sons have remarked that their mother always kept them on their toes. While raising six children and supporting a high-profile husband is plenty to keep anyone busy full-time, Mrs. Bush made time for other work as well, raising millions of dollars to improve literacy and fund cancer research, and raising the nation’s awareness of AIDS.
Despite these incredible achievements, Mrs. Bush told USA Today in a 1989 interview that “Suddenly women’s lib had made me feel my life had been wasted.” And she was not alone.
Our culture’s obsession with women “breaking the glass ceiling” implies that women who don’t rise to the top of the corporate ladder are either oppressed or unmotivated. It is a narrow-minded obsession and one that ultimately devalues countless women and their amazing contributions to society.
While a woman’s options are often spoken of as binary – stay at home or work outside the home – this all-or-nothing idea is nonsense. Most “stay-at-home” wives and mothers balance family responsibilities with other forms of work. From volunteering at a food pantry, running an in-home business, or practicing a career part-time while kids are at school, women play diverse and vital roles in their homes, communities and the workplace. Many women who do work out of the home full-time find ways – involving much personal sacrifice and little sleep – to successfully balance work and family.
Of course, they should have equal opportunities in the workplace. Women should earn equal pay to male colleagues who do the same jobs with the same education and experience. They should advance on the basis of their skills and merits, neither handicapped nor head-started because of their sex.
But “women’s liberation” becomes a cruel irony when women come to feel pushed out of their homes by the nagging of a society that recognizes only one kind of success, only one kind of strength. True “liberation” for women requires our culture to embrace the entire range of contributions women make to our world, in whatever form they take.
I think many people fear that if we extol the virtues of the stay-at-home mom, we somehow hurt or offend the work-outside-the-home moms. But we must honor the contributions of all women who excel in their chosen pursuits, whatever they may be.
A woman who dedicates her life to loving and nurturing her family – regardless of what other work she does or does not do – deserves our esteem, our admiration and our thanks. A woman who trains and cares for her children well has, perhaps in the most profound and lasting way possible, changed the world – not by leading a Fortune 500 company, making public policy or commanding tangible assets, but by lending the world human beings who are courageous, decent and kind.
The woman who makes this contribution may be quiet, gentle and unassuming, but she is also great.
Thank you, Mrs. Bush.