Michelle Obama to visit China. Do first ladies often travel solo abroad?

Michelle Obama, her mother, and Sasha and Malia will travel to China March 19 – without President Obama. Guess who was the first first lady to travel abroad on her own for official visits?

Joel Auerbach/AP/File
First lady Michelle Obama speaks in Miami, Feb. 25, 2014. Michelle Obama plans a week-long visit, without President Obama, to China this month that includes meetings with China’s first lady and high school and university students.

First lady Michelle Obama will head to China for a week-long official visit on March 19, the White House announced Monday. She’ll be accompanied by her daughters, Sasha and Malia, and her mother, Marian Robinson, but President Obama won’t tag along. He’s got a trip of his own to Europe and Saudi Arabia planned for that time period.

Education will be a major theme of the trip, and Mrs. Obama will visit with Chinese high school and university students. She’ll also meet Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The first lady is encouraging US students to follow her progress via the White House website. She’ll be posting a daily travel blog and taking and answering kids’ questions.

Issues such as education, escaping poverty, and easing climate change are the same around the world, wrote Mrs. Obama in a message to students on the White House blog Monday.

“These issues affect every last one of us, so it’s critically important that young people like you learn about what’s going on not just here in America, but around the world,” she wrote.

On Tuesday Mrs. Obama will visit a District of Columbia charter elementary school with a Chinese-language international baccalaureate program, as preparation and publicity for her trip.

It’s not the first time the first lady has set out on solo diplomatic visits. In 2010 she assessed earthquake damage in Haiti, then continued to Mexico for meetings on getting youths engaged in important political and economic questions. In 2011 she traveled to Botswana and South Africa sans spouse.

In doing so, she’s continuing a modern tradition. First ladies are unique ambassadors for the US. They’re important in a political sense, but their visits aren’t as divisive or high-stakes as those of presidents can be.

Eleanor Roosevelt pioneered such trips, as she did with so many other aspects of the modern role of first lady. She was the first presidential wife to travel overseas on her own. As a representative of the Red Cross, she traveled to England and Ireland and US bases throughout the Pacific in World War II.

The Kennedy administration deployed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to unique effect. Admired throughout the world, she built goodwill for the US in solo trips to Greece and Italy. In 1962 she was officially designated a “goodwill ambassador” for a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More recently, Laura Bush traveled to the Middle East as first lady to promote breast cancer awareness. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a solo trip to China in 1995 to attend a UN Conference on Women, where she called on the host nation to do more to push progress in gender equality.

But first ladies are not immune from overseas missteps. During a solo foray in the Middle East in 1999, Mrs. Clinton listened as Suha Arafat, Yassir Arafat’s wife, gave a speech in which she falsely accused Israel of using poison gas on Palestinians.

Mrs. Clinton hugged Mrs. Arafat at the end of the lecture.

“The First Lady’s politeness was taken as substantive agreement with Arafat’s inflammatory charges,” Brookings Institution Vice President Darrell West wrote in 2010.

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