What's Love Got to Do with It?

Wellesley's unease over wife and mother Barbara Bush renews the debate about women's divided loyalties

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How can women pick on Barbara Bush? If anything, the feminist police should give her an award for resisting pressure from every side to slim down, work out, dye her hair, hide her wrinkles or wear clothes no grandchild would dare drool on. Instead the First Lady must be feeling a little like Henry Kissinger, who attracted protests nearly every time he was invited to a college campus. But it's not the secret bombing of Cambodia that has a quarter of the senior class at Wellesley College objecting to the First Lady as speaker at this year's graduation. It is simply that she is married to George Bush and has no career of her own. "To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contradicts what we have been taught over the past four years," the students wrote in their petition.

Being First Lady may be an automatic disqualification at an all-women's college where graduates aspire to be President, not a President's wife; to run the country, not the house; and where previous speakers have included Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich. Barbara Bush wasn't Wellesley's first choice this year; that honor went to Alice Walker, black author, single mother and Pulitzer prizewinner, who declined. To women in cap and gown who have worked hard to be able to make it on their own, having a wife and mother on the podium may feel too diminishing, like getting on Nightline and then having to wave to your mom.

What the protest over Bush really displays is not disrespect but uncertainty. Women, after all, have always known they could be mothers. It is the opportunity to have full-strength, male-like careers that is relatively new and, therefore, tenuous. What makes it frightening is the assumption that they can play both roles well. Bush has acknowledged that being a woman was easier in her day. In a speech last year at Smith -- the school she dropped out of in 1944 at 19 to marry George Bush -- she told the students, "You have so many options that it must be difficult . . . women are often expected -- especially by themselves -- to be all things to all people, and to be perfect in every role."

Therein lies the rub. Women know that the hard-won choice to work has somehow turned into an imperative to do so, but without the support at home that makes it feasible. The professional classes paper over the shortfall by hiring a small army of parental surrogates, by accepting a reduced idea of the emotional needs of family life, and by lobbying for flextime and expanded day care. But no act of Congress will ever allow a parent to be in two places at once.

Despite two decades of feminist victories, only women seem to feel the emotional schizophrenia that comes with having children. The fact that "working father" and "daddy track" have not worked their way into the language is instructive, if not disconcerting. So is the survey that shows that wives put in an extra month of work at home each year, time their male counterparts can spend at their desks or, unfairer still, sleeping. If a woman has a fulfilling career, she still yearns for more time with her child. If she stays home, she is bound to wish for some of the excitement and perks that come with a job.

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