Michelle Obama, Laura Bush unite to talk about African women – and hair

Michelle Obama and Laura Bush shared a stage Tuesday at the African First Ladies Summit in Tanzania. They smiled and joked while also highlighting the importance of strengthening women.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
First lady Michelle Obama (l.) and former first lady Laura Bush look to each other as they participate in the African First Ladies Summit: 'Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa,' hosted by the George W. Bush Institute, Tuesday, July 2, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

It’s not often that first ladies former and present gather to draw attention to an issue for which they share a passion. It’s even rarer to see that event take place a world away and at the behest of a past president.

First lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor, Laura Bush, shared a stage Tuesday in Tanzania at the African First Ladies Summit, hosted by the George W. Bush Institute and focused, as its subtitle suggests, on “Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa.”

It was an opportunity to chat publicly about the influence of the job, and its drawbacks, and to put politics aside to highlight the importance of building up women, economically and otherwise – a cause in which the Bushes and the Obamas have both staked an interest. Politico called the event a first ladies edition of the television gabfest “The View.”

The first ladies of Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tanzania were all on hand, according to Voice of America, with more expected later in the conference. Mrs. Obama retweeted this picture of herself with a smiling Mrs. Bush and moderator Cokie Roberts.

Together, Obama and Bush spoke of how education, improved access to health care, and economic opportunity will boost prospects for the continent’s women and girls. When women do well, Bush suggested, the fates of nations improve overall.

“We’re highlighting support for women at this summit because at all levels and in all parts of society, women play a critical role,” Bush said.

Obama hit on a riff probably familiar to her stump-speech audiences in the US when she said it was her parents’ emphasis on education that helped shape the course of her adult life.

“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," she said. "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 right now as the first lady of the United States of America because of education.”

Obama and Bush also lamented one of the downsides of being first lady – specifically, a focus on appearance, clothes and hair, over the substance of their work. In many ways, this makes them no different from women around the globe who would like to see less emphasis on their looks, or their daughters’, and more on their smarts, accomplishments, and personal attributes.

During this conversation, Obama and Bush drew laughter for an exchange about the media coverage – over-coverage? – of Obama’s decision to cut her bangs.

“I was doing what Barbara was doing,” the first lady said, referring to Bush’s daughter, who also recently trimmed her hair. “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.”

“We hope,” Bush said.

Obama responded, “They do, and that's the power of our roles.”

Though Obama said being first lady is “the best job in the world,” she noted that it has “prisonlike elements” to it. Still, she said, “You can’t complain.”

As if to underscore their points, The Huffington Post ran a slide show Tuesday focused on the style of the first ladies. “Michelle Obama and Laura Bush played host in outfits that were classically ‘them’: Laura in solid red, Michelle in a print,” an intro read.

Despite the talk of their apparel, there is something almost joyful in watching sometimes political adversaries link arms to pull the often fleeting attention span of the world’s news consumers to issues of shared concern. It happens all too infrequently, here and abroad. It’s safer, in a way, to connect so far from the nation’s capital, where the dynamics of the latest political debates often forge adversarial rather than cooperative relationships, and cable chatter promotes dissent over agreement.

The first ladies smiled and joked. They looked loose and largely appreciative of each other’s company.

Tanzania was the Obamas' last stop before returning home after a tour of Africa. The Bushes are there for the conference, which is sponsored by ExxonMobil. Former President Bush also joined President Obama Tuesday for a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam.

It was coincidence that brought both couples to the continent at the same time, and they each took the opportunity to find avenues for modest partnership. Initially, at least, the first ladies were scheduled to meet, but not the presidents.

"They're learning from us," Mrs. Obama said to Mrs. Bush during the summit.

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