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January 24, 2006

Sister Laura

(Revised 1/24/06. 7:56 am PST)

Bush-St.Marys-1

When somewhere in the world there is a girl at risk, where would we be without soldiers of the Lord?

Maybe it’s the stereotype that this continent is populated mostly by the simple or backward.  Maybe it’s the notion that, in the face of great need, all help is altruistic.  Whatever it is, Laura Bush just finished a three country African tour without much critical attention at all.  The notable exception was an irritated response by Mrs. Bush to a few questions concerning whether the Administration overemphasizes abstinence as an AIDS prevention strategy (the funding for which is disproportionately directed toward faith-based groups.)

If you followed the trip, you would have seen a mostly pink or white-clad Mrs. Bush make her way through Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana as a virtual patron saint of womanhood.  (Example 1, 2, 3, 4).  One person who did manage to frame Mrs. Bush’s visual agenda was historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, whose research specialty is American First Ladies.  In an ABC profile of the mission, Mr. Anthony observed:  “[T]there’s a B plot that’s been going on with Laura Bush that maybe people haven’t been noticing.”  The article continues, “By highlighting inequality among women living in traditionally male-dominated cultures, [Mrs. Bush] has created … a kind of ‘international feminism’.”

What the professor fails to add is that “feminism” is employed in the service of masking a fundamentalist agenda.  The photos from Mrs. Bush’s visit to Saint-Mary’s Catholic Hospital in Nigeria are indicative.  In delivering antiretroviral drugs under the Administration’s “design your own” AIDS program (called PEPFAR), the Bush’s get to decide exactly who receives the (big Pharma, not generic) drugs, and under what terms.  As such, this image expresses the perfect ambiguity — and duplicity.  If the perceptual tendency is to reads these habits as dual nursing and religious uniforms, the White House plays on the former to downplay the latter.

My-People

After being convinced by her photo album that Africa is solely comprised of ministering women (or women being ministered to), this picture popped up in the White House cue.  It shows Mrs. Bush meeting with Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Presidential villa in Abuja.  And I thought the handlers got left at home!  Oh well.  After the National Geographic treatment, it’s almost reassuring to realize it’s just politics after all.

(image 1:  Shealah Craighead/White House. January 18, 2006. Gwagwalada, Nigeria.  whitehouse.gov. image 2:  Shealah Craighead/White House. January 18, 2006. Abuja, Nigeria.  whitehouse.gov.)

  • zatopa

    Looks like Ms. Bush needs to have a little sit-down with Kate O’Bierne and get their messages straight. The First Lady seems not to be aware that certain members of her party are not convinced that this whole American Feminism thing is all that great.

  • PTate in Mn

    Really? A B-plot to highlight female inequality in male-dominated cultures? An international feminism? Does Bushco NEVER leave Texas?
    What I see in these pictures are not images that highlight female inequality, but a culture organized into parallel power systems, one male, one female. African societies give women tremendous power, but in different ways than in western society. So we see Laura Bush, in pink and white, with nurses, teachers, women. These women are accomplished and powerful, and Mrs Bush comes across as a little ineffectual in comparison. In the link to picture #4, notice Laura Bush’s pink pants suit. The flared peplum is a nice touch–it echoes the bubba and iro worn by the Nigerian women. But other than the power conferred on her by her power, does LB really command the respect of these women?
    So international feminism means projecting the power of western husbands?

  • marysz

    Unfortunately, Laura Bush’s “international feminism” is just window-dressing. The administration’s misguided abstinence program in Africa and has had deadly consequences for poor women and their families. These pictures remind me of the trip Laura Bush took to Louisiana after Katrina. She certainly does a better job at these photo-ops than her husband does, and one of the White House photos shows her with her daughter Barbara. I guess Jenna’s back home partying. It’s in the administration’s interest to point out how bad women have it in other countries. Then the status of women in the US is supposed to look good in comparison. The Women’s Health and Wellness page on the White House website is revealing. It’s all about exercise and eating well. It’s pretty trivial in light of the health problems women face in this country.

  • erthsister

    Opps. That’s WH queue, not cue. :) < spelling police\ >
    From the top picture, I am reminded that Mrs. Bush seems to like to wear these clean-line ice-cream suits when visiting outside the WH. While I rather appreciate the “clean” look, it makes me wonder about the apparent uncomplicatedness of the visits. Mrs. Bush does not present any particular individuality through her clothing. The suits are *so* clean, they are a blank slate or movie screen. We are supposed to assume that Mrs. Bush is likewise uncomplicated–innocent, non-threatening. Or that we can project onto her whatever we want to see. …Or that that these poly/wool(?) pantsuits travel well.
    Actually, the first thing that I noticed was in the second photograph. Here, the women on the African side are colorful yet formal, providing more texture and variation. ON the Bush side, almost all of the wonks & advisers are in the dark uniform of American politics. Any individuality is muted into the uniform. They almost look like those little plastic figures in war games. Uncomplicated, annonymous, and expendible. < ducks to avoid the spelling police >
    Since I consider ones individuality to be an essential componant of a woman’s right to be herself, pursuing her own rights and dreams, this seems a strangly blank face to show. I notice this more strongly in comparison with the colorful dress of the African women.
    All these visuals prompt me to notice this:
    It’s strange that Mrs Bush representing/speaking for other women’s rights when she is married to a man who is worse than indifferent to women’s rights. Her credentials as a feminist are dubious.
    I notice that she is visiting only people who are considerably down the social ladder. So is she “liberated” (and therefor *visiting*) only in relation to people who have relatively little freedom (professionally trained women non-withstanding)? I don’t see her visiting any NOW conferences in this country as a vanguard of feminism. There the comparisons would be laughable.
    It’s easier to be seen in a positive light against a “negative” background. It’s like the snarky strategy of looking thinner by hanging out with heavier people.

  • PTate in MN

    Actually, re-reading the Bag’s comments, it struck me that the audience for these pictures is not women in developing nations, but the Bush base of Christian fundamentalists back home. These images communicate Bush’s posture as a “compassionate” conservative–health! schools! international feminism! love the black people!–without making anyone uncomfortable. Laura is the good Christian church lady/wife/partner projecting her husband’s power to the rest of the world.
    The picture with Obasanjo is interesting. Laura in a cream pants suit is almost invisible against the cream carpet, cream upholstery and drapes. All you can really see is the spot of dark hair and shoes. Interpretation: When it comes to real power, she’s not really there.

  • jt from BC

    Jesus !!!
    Before it was “The White Mans Burden” now its “The White Woman’s Burden” (another Trojan horse) what a humongous crock of BULLSHIT.
    If it wasn’t for the women in Africa and in other cultures their societies would have disappeared by now.
    I watched the black community in my country and in Latin America, let the boys play the macho games but when the shit hit the fan it was the women who kept everyone afloat. (First to nourish last to eat, etc etc)
    Sorry about the mild vulgarity I can’t be bothered looking for those other words…
    An elderly black friend told me that “The Christians came to Africa with the Bible, and we had the land, now we have the Bible and they have the land”
    I was seven years old at the time and when I saw black kids at school wearing my old second hand cloths I understood instantly even if I couldn’t find Africa on the map or stay awake in Sunday school.
    And that:’The First Lady’ label gets to me as well I find it phony, crude and acquired without merit.

  • Gary

    Laura Bush as Princess Di. I don’t think so.

  • cookiejar

    err, this is just another manufactured event. The entire trip to Afganistan to free the women is the first.
    Here we see this inane, dumb as rocks wealthy because she sponged off the Bush money for thirty years and more of her life and now we the tax payers pay for her galavanting around the globe in manufactured events–and we see he her unemployed duaghter also sponging off the tax payer money, looking as uncomfortable to be around black people as granny Barbara Bush is comfortable with letting them know they had better be happy and satisfied with a cot in the Astrodome, because it is better than what they had at home.
    And that hat! She never has been seen wearing a hat like that before except when she wore that black hat to go to the Queen mother’s funeral. So what’s with the hat?
    Trying to look like the royalty from Britain whose empire subjugated these people and many like them?

  • Mad_nVT

    What’s the black object in the middle of the room of the second picture? Nobody seems to be paying any attention to it, so it’s probably not a child.
    Regarding Laura Bush, doesn’t she look almost virginal in her almost white suit?
    Anybody know how this is playing in the right-wing blogosphere?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/error27/ error27

    It’s no secret that many African countries struggle with poverty. You can see it in example #1. The room is bare. The only decoration is a “Fight AIDS” poster on the wall. The curtains are drawn and slightly faded by the sun.
    The children in that picture are dressed in their Sunday best. Probably those clothes were originally donated to charity in the West and shipped in 100 lb bales to Africa and resold.
    The women are wearing traditional patterns. They are dressed nicely but one woman is wearing worn out sandals. It contrasts with the shoes the children have. In Africa mothers make sacrifices for their children.
    There is a deep hardship marked on these women’s faces. Some people from the other pictures are probably poor as well, but the caption says that these are patients and families at a treatment center…
    No Americans can understand what it’s like to be poor in Africa. Of course, Laura Bush feels and looks out of place there, but I can’t fault her for that. She was a competent leader in the Red Cross. It’s not just for show.

  • ummabdulla

    All the comments are good, but I think PTate nailed it: Laura Bush as missionary, for Christianity or maybe for the American way (whatever that is).
    That second picture is typical in the Middle East, too; whenever some dignitary visits the leader, the news (on the goverment channel) opens with a few minutes of tape of them shaking hands and sitting there making small talk in this kind of reception room. I think that black thing in the middle is a small table with flowers or something on it, isn’t it?
    I wonder whether about the people who have such negative ideas when they see Muslim women wearing hijab… would they have the same negative ideas when they see the Christian “sisters” (I don’t know whether they’re nuns or nurses or both) in the first photo?

  • http://bazungubucks.blogspot.com/ Kaunda

    I know this thread is over, so I don’t mind saying that Shealah Craighead’s photos aren’t very good. I’m not familiar with White House photographers, but with they’re such expert message makers these photos seem especially poor.

  • AMR

    I couldn’t disagree more with the comment by Ummabdulla that Craighead’s photos are not good. On the contrary, they are wonderful examples of how an artist can take a moment in history and preserve it forever. Craighead captured not only the physical element but the emotional and spiritual as well. A point and shoot or digital camera does not make you a photographer. I suggest you try it at Craighead’s or any professional phtographer’s level before making such an inaccurate and poor judgement.

  • AMR

    I couldn’t disagree more with the comment by Ummabdulla that Craighead’s photos are not good. On the contrary, they are wonderful examples of how an artist can take a moment in history and preserve it forever. Craighead captured not only the physical element but the emotional and spiritual as well. A point and shoot or digital camera does not make you a photographer. I suggest you try it at Craighead’s or any professional phtographer’s level before making such an inaccurate and poor judgement.

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