In 1990, the students at Wellesley College had voted to invite African American writer Alice Walker to give the commencement address. Walker declined. Instead, school officials announced, first lady Barbara Bush would speak at the graduation.
Some seniors complained. Bush had attended Smith College, another women’s school, but she had dropped out at 19 to marry a patrician young Navy pilot named George H.W. Bush. It wasn’t exactly the Wellesley way, 150 seniors said in a petition protesting the choice to have Barbara Bush as the commencement speaker.
“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,” the petition read.
The controversy grew. President Bush publicly defended his wife’s life choices. Pundits weighed in and Barbara Bush, who had never been a lightning rod, found herself at the center of a national debate about the nature of feminism that would continue for decades.
Wellesley’s graduation day also coincided with a summit in Washington between President Bush and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. It was just seven months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, traveled with him. Raisa Gorbachev , a former university teacher, even accompanied Barbara Bush on stage at Wellesley on graduation day, which came on June 1, 1990. Curiosity was sky high.
The three big networks carried the speech live, followed by the kind of commentary usually reserved for a State of the Union address.
What the critics loved, and the students too, judging by their applause, was Bush’s direct challenge to the notion that anyone but the woman should choose a woman’s path.
“One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh,” Bush said.
The crowd of 5,000 was with her from the beginning. She exhorted them to chase their careers but to never forget that “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, she tiptoed up to controversy: “And who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse … ”
But when she ended with this: “ … and I wish him well,” they gave her a prolonged standing ovation as she and Raisa Gorbachev beamed.
When she returned to the White House, staffers had strung a banner for her. It said, “A job Wellesley done.”