Jenna Bush Hager, “Today” correspondent and daughter of former President George W. Bush, gushed about her parents in a recent interview with People Magazine.
“I think the thing that my parents did so well and might surprise people, although I don’t know why, is that they really wanted us to be curious, independent thinkers,” she told People. “They wanted to raise us to have our own views and to be able to articulate them.”
Bush Hager specifically highlighted the way her father contributed to her strength, telling People that the former president “led [Jenna and her twin sister Barbara] to believe that [they] were the smartest, most capable kids out there.”
“People laugh at this,” continued Bush Hager, “but I think my dad was a feminist. He showed us that we could be whatever we wanted to be. I want my girls to feel that way. I want them to feel strong and capable and feel like they can conquer the world.”
These are lovely sentiments, to be sure. And if Bush Hager credits her father with raising her to be a strong, independent-thinking, outspoken woman, then that is certainly laudable.
However, feminism is about more than respecting (or raising or loving) individual women and girls, and promoting that watered-down definition is harmful to women at large. It’s about social, political and economic equality for all ― something that can only be achieved if addressed systemically.
Bush Hager’s warm words come during a time when her father is experiencing a period of nostalgia-induced image rehab.
As HuffPost’s Ryan Grim wrote in March, “[President] Trump has shifted Americans’ vantage point on Bush, who seems competent, well-spoken, tolerant and humane by comparison,” and yet, “missing amid much of the reaction to Bush’s sensible words was the memory of his deeds.”
Former President Bush may have raised self-declared feminist daughters, but he does not have a great track record when it comes to enacting feminist policies that would have benefitted women outside of his immediate family.
One of the first things he did when he took office in 2001, was reinstate the global gag rule, which blocks U.S. funding to international health care groups that provide abortion or abortion counseling. His administration backed a Family Time Flexibility Act, which was roundly criticized for benefiting employers far more than workers who needed overtime pay to support their families. His administration’s U.N. delegation continuously promoted abstinence over contraception and sexual education. In 2003, President Bush signed into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which prohibits physicians from performing a specific method of late-term abortion, more accurately termed intact dilation and extraction.
In March 2004, Laura Flanders wrote in The Guardian about the way the Bush camp was using its female members to create a more palatable view of President Bush’s more anti-woman views and policies.
“Without a legislative record to attract the majority of female voters, the Bush/Cheney campaign is deploying its female faces,” Flanders wrote. “While Bush courts so-called Nascar dads at the Daytona car-races and slaps the backs of cowboys at rodeos, the first lady makes her appeals to women. A self-proclaimed former Democrat, who appeared on TV shortly before her husband’s inauguration to say she didn’t believe abortion should be banned, Laura Bush’s job is to lull social moderates. The White House isn’t really in the clutches of religious extremists, she reassures.”
This commentary feels uncomfortably familiar in light of the way that President Trump has deployed his daughter (and advisor) Ivanka, as well as First Lady Melania Trump.
Last July, Ivanka Trump declared that her father was a feminist in an interview with the Sunday Times:
My father is a feminist. He’s a big reason I am the woman I am today. People talk about gender equality. He has lived it, he has employed women at the highest levels of the Trump Organization for decades, so I think it’s a great testament to how capable he thinks women are and has shown that his whole life... He always told me and showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to if I married vision and passion with work ethic. He’s also surrounded me with strong female role models who have done just that since I was a little girl.
Whether or not President Trump made Ivanka feel that he believes women are “capable” and “strong,” his first months in office have certainly not extended these warm and fuzzy sentiments to the American public.
The danger of labeling any man who respects an individual woman “feminist,” is that the term begins to lose all meaning. Raising a strong daughter is one thing, but having the power to impact the health and opportunities of 162 million American women is quite another.