Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama and Former First Lady Laura Bush in a Conversation at the African First Ladies Summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

July 02, 2013

MS. ROBERTS: What a great occasion, and what a tremendous honor for me to be here. Thank you so very, very much for inviting me to come to Tanzania. And thank you, Mrs. Kikwete, for hosting this. This is very -- it's important to do.

President Obama said in South Africa on Sunday, quoting the best possible source -- his mother -- (laughter) -- he said that you can measure how well a country does by how it treats its women. And, of course, President Obama's mother said that long before we had the data -- and we now have tons and tons of data to show that the single two biggest factors in development are the education of girls and the economic empowerment of women.

And for all the reasons that you've just delineated, Mrs. Bush -- the importance of the education of girls and the empowerment of women. So my hat's off to all of you, and especially the first ladies of Africa -- who are wearing wonderful hats, by the way -- because you work on these issues every day in your countries, pushing and prodding the powers that be -- and yes, your husbands -- to do the right things; to help your countries by helping the women and girls in your countries. So congratulations to you.

And this is a session where we are going to have some congratulations and also some learning. And in that spirit, I was going to start by saying, why can't the guys get together like this, but now they are getting together. (Laughter.) They're getting together this morning; I think they've probably taken their example from you.

MRS. OBAMA: They're learning from us as women. (Laughter.)

MS. ROBERTS: Exactly. But you know, this question of "First Lady" has always been somewhat fraught. You quoted Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Bush, but it really -- particularly, I know in the United States, Americans have always been a little bit wary about first ladies -- they're not elected, and they can't be fired -- (laughter) -- and they have a whole lot of power. But it can also be a little confining, I think is a fair way to put it.

Martha Washington, our first First Lady, wrote in the first year that she was First Lady, she wrote to her niece that she felt like a "Chief State Prisoner." (Laughter.) But she was able to do good -- she lobbied for all of those veterans that she had been to camp with through the Revolutionary War. And people don't realize that first ladies have been doing that kind of thing from Martha Washington --

MRS. OBAMA: Absolutely.

MS. ROBERTS: And, Mrs. Obama, you talked about -- you've talked about, wherever you go, there's a light that shines, and that you're able to shine that light on something that needs attention that wouldn't otherwise get it. Talk about that a little bit.

MRS. OBAMA: That's absolutely true. I always joke that we have probably the best jobs in the world because, unlike our husbands who have to react and respond to crisis on a minute-by-minute basis -- they come into office with a wonderful, profound agenda, and then they're faced with the reality. (Laughter.)

On the other hand, we get to work on what we're passionate about. And I think that that's something that I would encourage all first ladies to never lose sight of. You have an opportunity to speak to your passions and to really design and be very strategic about the issues you care most about. And I just found it just a very freeing and liberating opportunity.

MS. ROBERTS: No state prisoner? (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: No, there are prison elements to it. (Laughter.) But it's a really nice prison, so --

MRS. BUSH: But with a chef. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: You can't complain. But there is definitely elements that are confining.

MS. ROBERTS: And she said that before tweeting and cell phones.

MRS. OBAMA: That's right, 24-hour media.

MS. ROBERTS: And she could cover her hair with that cap. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Right. But being able to pursue our passions and do things that not only help our country and connect us with the rest of the world, it's a great privilege. So while people are sort of sorting through our shoes and our hair -- (laughter) -- whether we cut it or not --

MRS. BUSH: Whether we have bangs.

MRS. OBAMA: Whether we have bangs. (Laughter.) Who would have thought? I didn't call that one. (Laughter.)

MRS. BUSH: I said that just because our daughter, Barbara, cut bangs at the same time Michelle did. They commiserated --

MRS. OBAMA: I was doing what Barbara was doing. (Laughter.) I was just following her lead. But we take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see. And eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we're standing in front of.

MRS. BUSH: We hope.

MRS. OBAMA: They do, and that's the power of our roles.

MS. ROBERTS: Mrs. Bush, you quoted, again, Lady Bird Johnson, talking about, I have a podium and I'm going to use it. But it's a unique role, and there must be a learning curve. And I remember as you were leaving the White House, you said that at first you were "dense" -- (laughter) -- about how hard it was; how the role is really not something that you understood the power of.

MRS. BUSH: Well, and I should have understood it, because I had a mother-in-law who was a First Lady. I had watched her, of course, the whole time she served in public office with her husband, my father-in-law, President Bush. And so, I really had an advantage that -- the only other First Lady that's had this advantage was Louisa Adams, whose mother-in-law had been first lady as well.

So I really did come to the White House knowing a lot about the White House and knowing where things were, and we even knew the staff -- the butlers and the ushers -- because we had stayed there so often with President Bush and Barbara. But what I didn't really understand was how people would listen to the First Lady.

And right after attacks of September 11th when -- I gave the presidential radio address to talk about women in Afghanistan. And right after that, I was in a department store with my daughter, Jenna -- she was a freshman in college and I was in Austin seeing her -- and we want to a department store. And the women who sold cosmetics at the department store said, thank you so much, Ms. Bush, thank you for speaking for the women in Afghanistan. And that was the first time it really occurred to me that people really did hear me, and that I really did have that podium that Lady Bird Johnson knew about and had told us about.

And so, I want to encourage every first lady to speak out and speak up and let people know, because people are watching and they are listening. And you can be so constructive for your country if you speak up about issues that you think are important.

MS. ROBERTS: Did you have an experience like that?

MRS. OBAMA: Absolutely, but I just want to take a moment to commend Mrs. Bush, because she and her staff helped my team with that transition. And that's a powerful lesson for other leaders, is that there's a lot of give and take when you're campaigning, but when the dust settles, we are all in this together. And Laura has been just so helpful. Her Chief of Staff, Anita McBride, and many of the team members left notes for my staff. My chief of staff calls Anita on a regular basis -- (laughter) -- I think it's daily or weekly or something like that.

But having your predecessors be people who are willing to extend themselves on behalf of the country, to help with that transition makes the world of difference. But nothing prepares you. (Laughter.) Nothing prepares you for this role. I mean, it is so startling that the transition of power in the United States happens so quickly that you don't have access to the house until the President takes the oath of office.

So, literally --

MRS. BUSH: During the inaugural parade -- one family moves out and the next family moves in. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Literally. And I remember walking into that house and I didn't even know where the bathrooms were. (Laughter.) But I had to get ready for a ball. (Laughter.) It was like, and I've got to look nice? It's like, what door is this, and you're opening up all these doors, and you can't find your toothpaste, you don't know where your kids are. (Laughter.) So that's day one.

MRS. BUSH: Exactly.

MS. ROBERTS: That's a daunting experience. One of the things -- we did ask the first ladies of Africa if they wanted to submit some questions, and one of the things that was true throughout the questions was the sense of continuity; that -- was there a way to keep your efforts going after the spotlight does go away. Now, Mrs. Bush, is this one of your ways of doing that?

MRS. BUSH: Yes, this is. But for George and me, through the Bush Institute, we're able to focus on four areas that were so important to us when George was President.

When you are President, every issue comes to the desk of the President of the United States. First ladies have it a little bit easier because we can choose specific issues to focus on, but now that we're home, through the Bush Institute -- the policy institute that's part of our Bush Presidential Center at SMU -- we are able to continue to work on issues that were important to us.

MS. ROBERTS: And you said, Mrs. Obama, that you want your issues to have a lasting effect, so how do you do that?

MRS. OBAMA: Four to eight years is really a blink of an eye. And you often find that you're just starting to get your teeth into your issues, and then it's time to go. But none of the issues --

MS. ROBERTS: -- your children.

MRS. OBAMA: That's true, that's true. (Laughter.) That's absolutely true. But none of the work that we do and any of us does will be concluded at the end of a term. I tell the young people that I work with around health, the military families that I support, that for me, these issues are -- I say a forever proposition.

This isn't work that I'm just doing

(Audio drops out.)

MRS. OBAMA: -- that I find in this position that there are girls around the world who are looking to us and how we behave and how we carry on our issues. And they're going to be watching us for decades to come.

MS. ROBERTS: There's that prisoner thing again.

MRS. OBAMA: There it is. (Laughter.) Keeps coming --

MRS. BUSH: But there are things that you could establish, like the National Book Festival that I started. I'm the librarian, and so it was a very obvious sort of thing for me to start. I started a Texas book festival in Dallas -- I mean, in Austin, when George was governor, and then started one that the Library of Congress now runs. And so it continues to go on.

But Michelle's right -- we'll never finish with education. We'll never get to rub our hands together and say, oh, we took care of that. There will be another little class of kindergartners. And it's something we'll always work on.

MS. ROBERTS: Well, again, it's like child-raising. Yes, it's like child-raising.

MRS. BUSH: Exactly -- it's never over.

MS. ROBERTS: But, Mrs. Bush, you all talked about the -- agenda and it gets disrupted, but your agenda got disrupted too. And you were on Capitol Hill about to testify before Ted Kennedy's committee about education when September 11th --

MRS. BUSH: That's right. I mean, of course, things happen that you don't expect, like what happened to us in the United States on September 11th. And the National Book Festival that I founded, it -- just then the weekend before -- the Saturday before that, September 8th. And then I was scheduled -- in fact, I went onto Capitol Hill on the morning of September 11th because I was going to brief the Senate Education Committee on a summit that I had hosted that summer on early childhood education, and got to the Capitol and joined Senator Kennedy in his office then as we watched on television and started to see the towers fall. And we knew -- he knew and I knew -- that everything had changed for us and for our country, really.

And that's what happens to presidents also; those kinds of issues come up that you don't expect, and it changes your whole focus. In fact, in our new presidential museum, the very first part of it is everything that we thought we would be working on -- tax cuts, the book festival, the faith-based and community service projects, tee ball on the South Lawn of the White House -- (laughter) -- our first state dinner, which was with Mexico -- which is where we really expected to spend a lot of our time in the Americas because we were from a border state -- and then September 11th --

MS. ROBERTS: And that's how you got involved with the women of Afghanistan.

MRS. BUSH: That's right.

MS. ROBERTS: One of the questions that has come in from the South African -- or from the African first ladies refers to both of you as the mothers of girls -- and you are now the grandmother of a girl.

MRS. BUSH: That's right, the grandmother of another girl -- baby Margaret Laura. (Applause.)

MS. ROBERTS: And the question of the education of girls -- and you, of course, know how important it is in your own lives, but as I alluded to earlier, one of the things we now have just so much data on is that if you educate a girl, you can save a country. And the first ladies here are saying, what can you do to work with them globally for the education of girls?

MRS. BUSH: Well, we both obviously spend a lot of time on education, especially the education of girls. But the fact is, in the United States, now more girls are graduating from high school than boys. And more girls are in college and more girls are in masters programs -- women are -- than boys. And that --

(Audio interruption.)

MRS. OBAMA: -- Mandela's most important quote of the millions of things he has said is that education is probably the most powerful weapon for change. But a lot of our kids don't understand that. In the United States, many of them take it for granted. Many of them have a mindset that they can't do it because they've been grown up to be taught that they can't.

So there's a large part of my initiative that's really trying to get into the heads of these young people and use my story as an example of what -- the power of education. And I tell kids all across the country, I want them to look at me not as the First Lady, but as one of them.

I was a girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, my parents didn't have much money, but they invested in my education. And they invested in my education as equally as they did my brother; there was no different bar. And as a result of that training and preparation, I have had opportunities and I am sitting here now as First Lady of the United States of America because of education. (Applause.)

MS. ROBERTS: It was -- one of the things that the PEPFAR program is doing is not just reaching -- not just treating people -- which is, of course, wonderful -- but getting to the orphans and vulnerable children. I was in -- Ethiopia with Save The Children where this 13-year-old girl that had been through our program stood up and started talking about what was needed in the community, and then the local minister from that region told her she was crazy and she just stood right back up and just went -- and I -- you go, girl. And that really does make a difference in the future.

MRS. BUSH: Well, it is important to reach parents as well. So the parents know that they need to make sure their children are educated -- in whatever way they can.

We know from research that mothers who can bring in a little bit of money, they're more likely to spend their money on their fees for their children's education and on their uniforms and others things they need to go to school. So all of it really works together -- the economic empowerment as well as just the understanding of how important education is.

MRS. OBAMA: And I just want to take a moment to recognize Mama Kikwete's work educating female orphans here, the school she has started. (Applause.) I got an opportunity to sit with some of the children and watch a cultural program. But there are so many young girls that don't have families, they don't have role models. And as Mama Kikwete understands, they need a safe place to land, a place where they can get food and shelter and love and direction.

So I applaud Mama Kikwete and all the first ladies who are providing that kind of safe harbor for our young girls. So, congratulations. (Applause.)

MS. ROBERTS: Well, you talk about the role models, and you talked about yourselves as role models, but, Mrs. Bush, you said at one point, I think that our first ladies are a lot more complicated than they get treated in the media. I suspect every first lady here would agree with that. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that it's always those sort of --

MRS. BUSH: Well, I think -- in the United States, it has a lot to do with the way you look. That's a lot of the discussion about women. That's a problem everywhere in the United States -- for girls as well. The way you look -- girls worry about all sorts of problems that they shouldn't have to worry about. They should be worried about what they're doing and how they're being educated instead of whether they look pretty or they look sexy. (Applause.)

But that's the way we treat women, sadly. And it's obviously when you read in the press -- I mean, it's like talking about the bangs, or somebody writing about them, really -- worse -- the press writing about them.

MS. ROBERTS: Do you think you get put in a box?

MRS. BUSH: Yes, a little bit.

MRS. OBAMA: Absolutely. I constantly get asked, especially in the first term, are you more like Laura Bush, or are you more like Hillary Clinton? And I'm like, is that it? That's all I -- (laughter) --

MRS. BUSH: Exactly the problem -- everyone said -- reporters -- are you Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush? And I always just said, well, I think I'll be Laura Bush; I do Laura Bush pretty well, having grown up as her. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: But this is also why it's important for us to make sure that more women use their voices and their power. Because we know, as women, that we're not that complicated, but we are complex. We are deep, diverse, enlightened people in the universe. And the world will be better off when our voices are at the table.

We just bring a different perspective. We are mothers. We are nurturers. We have to juggle a lot. I love my husband, but sometimes when he has, like, five things to do at one time, it's funny to watch it. (Laughter.) You don't know where you jacket is right now -- (laughter) -- can't find that shoe, Mr. President. (Laughter.) It's a little --

MRS. BUSH: I always think -- but they're good at focus.

MRS. OBAMA: Very focused. Focus. (Laughter.) But I think that that's the -- and we as women cannot underestimate the value of what we bring, and I think that's what young girls are taught -- that their voices aren't important; be small, be quiet.

MRS. BUSH: The way we look is more important --

MRS. OBAMA: The way they look is more important --

MRS. BUSH: -- than what they learn and say.

MRS. OBAMA: And we are missing 50 percent of the intellect that could go -- and needs to go to -- that's true. But I want to keep it fair. I don't want the men to feel too --

MS. ROBERTS: Left out.

MRS. OBAMA: -- lesser.

MS. ROBERTS: You know, you talked -- just briefly mentioned the campaign trail. And of course, both of you spent a great deal of time on the campaign trail, and wives -- and it has been wives so far -- are sort of in the role of validators, character witnesses for their husbands on the trail. But then you get to the White House and you have another role, which seemed to me to be incredibly difficult, which is that sometimes you have to be the only truth teller.

Now, this is true of all spouses to some degree, but when I have to tell my husband the truth, there's not his political future or the peace of the world riding on it.

MRS. OBAMA: It's just "that tie looks bad." (Laughter.)

MS. ROBERTS: So how do you deal with sometimes being the only person who can tell your husband the truth?

MRS. BUSH: Well, I have that famous story -- I think I told it to the first ladies last year in New York -- about how Barbara Bush, my mother-in-law, said, don't criticize George's speeches -- (laughter) -- because she criticized her George's speech and he came home for weeks afterwards with letters saying it was the best speech he'd ever given. (Laughter.)

So I took her advice -- this was years ago when George was running for Congress -- and we were driving into our driveway after a campaign event in another town. We were just driving up, and he said, how was my speech? And I said, well, it wasn't really very good, and he drove into the garage wall. (Laughter and applause.)

But I think you have to be really careful, actually -- (laughter) -- with -- tells him the truth. Actually, the President --

(Audio interruption.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama and Former First Lady Laura Bush in a Conversation at the African First Ladies Summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320124

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