There were lots of tears during the Women in the World Summit on Thursday when co-anchor of The Today Show Savannah Guthrie sat down with the most powerful members of the Bush family: the women.
Former First Lady Laura Bush and her 34-year-old twin daughters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager may no longer call the White House home, but their work campaigning for the rights of women around the world is far from finished, both in their chosen causes and careers and in the support they give each other as family members.
“It’s not like my parents…sat us down and were like, ‘This is the map to being the type of person we want you to be.’ It’s more like they showed us,” Jenna said.
One of the most powerful examples was set by the elder Laura Bush, the strong but quiet backbone of the Bush family. Jenna remembers her mom being a gentle presence growing up, guiding through suggestion rather than command, and always letting her young girls make their own mistakes. (That presence still lingers: “I’m not going to say anything too bad, mom, don’t worry,” Jenna assured at one point when commenting on the current presidential campaign).
But while this “quiet grace” may have led many of her accomplishments to go unnoticed, or caused her to be stereotyped as “a woman who baked cookies,” as Jenna said, this is far from the case. In fact, Jenna noted, based on the morning’s cookie-baking attempt, it has been years since her mom has tried her hand at the sweet treats.
In the days following the September 11 terrorist attack, Laura Bush began dedicating herself to the rights of Afghan women, a cause she continues to support through her work at the George W. Bush Institute. “I think after Sept 11 when the spotlight turned to Afghanistan all of us were horrified by the way we saw women treated there…so many American women wanted to do something,” Bush said.
One of her favorite stories from her recently published a book, We Are Afghan Women, which tells the history of modern Afghanistan through the stories of 28 women and one man, is that of a schoolteacher who returned to the country following 9/11 to open more schools. “One of the first things she teaches the girls to do is write their father’s name. And in many cases their father’s can’t write, so the fathers end up being very proud of them. I think it’s very smart.”
The job of first lady is demanding, but Laura Bush says that she had an advantage in her mother-in-law (“advantage and disadvantage—just kidding,” quipped Jenna). Laura remembers having conversations with “Barb” during the 1980 presidential campaign about what the first First Lady Bush wanted to focus on while in the White House. When it came her own time to take over the role, there was one thing she knew for sure — she wanted to live by Lady Bird Johnson’s famous saying: “The first lady has a podium, and I intend to use it.”
The Bush daughters, on the other hand, are very grateful that they were allowed to grow up like any other college kids when their dad first took office (they were freshman at the time). But they also acknowledge that their parents gave them a lot of opportunity to travel. One particular trip to Africa, when President Bush was implementing PEPFAR—the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—changed Barbara’s life.
She has since gone on to found the Global Health Corps, a nonprofit group committed to helping fill the needs of ministries of health and large nonprofits throughout the world.
“We are investing in young leaders who are solving global health issues now,” Barbara said, to cheers from the Global Health Corps representatives in the audience. “They’re working to solve health issues now and they’re young so they’re going to stay in this field for their careers. And so I think we’ll see a very different looking field of global health with great talent and great creativity invested by young people.”
It????s not easy being the family of the president, but all three women look back fondly on their time living at the most prestigious address in the U.S. When Guthrie asked what they missed the most, Laura deadpanned “the chef,” then talked about the people who worked there, many whom the family remained close to. One was the White House florist Nancy Clarke, who took in young Jenna and Barbara during the middle of a chilly inaugural parade for their father and taught them how to make bouquets. Years later, she was the florist for Jenna’s wedding.
The Bush family prior to the wedding of Jenna and Henry Hager May 10, 2008. (Shealah Craighead/The White House via Getty Images)
But despite the privileges the Bush women have had, it is clear that the core of their success is kin. Their family was so close — and seemed so normal — that Barbara says she thought “everyone’s grandfather was president” when she was little.
“They babysat us the night before one of the big debates and Barbara lost her stuffed animal, and my grandpa, instead of prepping for the debate, went on a search with flashlights because she wouldn’t fall asleep,” Jenna remembers. “They always put family first.”
While none of the women say they have any aspirations to be president themselves, they are all dedicated to supporting and encouraging women both in their own lives and through their work.
“We should be women lifting each other up,” said Jenna, who revealed that she always tries to meet up with people who reach out to her asking for advice, even if she doesn’t know them.
The former first lady, who never had siblings, stresses the importance of having female friends.
“One of the things I was lucky enough to be able to do is make friends that are like sisters. I still hike every year in the national parks with women I grew up with in Midland, Texas,” she said. “I think one of the things women can do is depend on their friends and really nurture your friendships, especially those kind of old friendships where you really know each other’s histories.”
It was an uplifting message of support and empowerment for all women — even those on the stage.
“We need more therapy, can we pay for a little extra time?” Jenna joked as the panel came to an end.
With additional reporting by Laura Macomber.
Watch the full panel here: