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Barbara Bush’s Abigail Adams Impersonation

Why are students of American history having a dèja-vu over Barbara Bush?

August 3, 2000

Why are students of American history having a dèja-vu over Barbara Bush?

So far, only one woman in U.S. history has been immortalized both as wife and mother to U.S. American Presidents. Yet, Abigail Adams, the sharp-minded wife of John Adams, the second President of the United States and mother of John Quincy Adams, the fourth President, was definitely not everybody’s grandmother. Rather, she heavily immersed herself in the politics of the day, composing her most famous letter “Remember the Ladies.”

Almost two centuries later, Barbara Bush, born in 1925, has fulfilled the role of second and later first lady, dedicating her time to honorable causes such as education, the homeless and AIDS. On the other hand, Abigail Adams was busy running the farm back home and doing a man’s job. At the same time, she wielded an important and healthy political influence over her husband regarding the role of women and other political concerns of the young nation.

There are, however, some common features. Both, Abigail and Barbara had to endure long separations from their husbands and did a substantial part of raising the children by themselves. Just as Abigail ran the show and managed an extensive household, so did Barbara. The main difference being that Mrs. Bush could grab the next telephone to communicate with her President husband, whereas Ms Adams wrote thousands of letters.

These letters let the present-day reader gain an in-depth idea about how much she was aware of what was going on around her politically. In fact, Abigail would have been the perfect product of B.B.’s literacy programs. Her intellect and insight are all the more impressive when one bears in mind that she never enjoyed any formal education.

The closest Mrs. Bush came to advocating women’s emancipation — not in the hackneyed way the word has been used since the 1970’s — was when she said to an audience: “Somewhere out in this audience may be someone who will one day follow my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President’s spouse. I wish him well.”

The autodidactic Adams was what Barbara Bush wanted to create with her literacy programs. She took her life in her own hand and dared to stick out. Even today this is not the easiest exercise. 200 years ago that might have turned a respected woman into a social outcast, a risk Barbara never had to take.