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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Barbara Bush Expanded Literacy with Help from Fannie Flagg

What could happen to a woman being educated and reading a lot of books? In the 19th century, many believed women had smaller brains so, therefore, were inferior to men. They believed that an educated woman would end up irritable, infertile and unable to lead a good life as a mother and wife.

Harvard medical professor Dr. Edward Clarke furthered these beliefs in 1872 when he published Sex in Education, or A Fair Chance for the Girls. It stated that women were not as physically and intellectually capable as men to be educated. If so, they would face “physiological disasters,” such as “nervous collapse and sterility.”

The book sold out within the first week, demonstrating its popularity. Many followed Dr. Clarke’s thinking, but he also inspired women’s rights activists to protest and push for women to be educated. A major change over the years was women’s right to vote in 1920.

Our country’s presidential wives often have fought for women to learn and stand up for making their lives better.

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams (1797-1801) and mother of John Quincy Adams (1825-29), was an avid reader and self-educated. She used her role as first lady to push for women’s rights.

Five years after Sex in Education was published, Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford Hayes (1877-81), was the first college graduate to become first lady. While she supported her husband’s temperance movement, her main goal encouraged education for all.

In the past century, first ladies have stepped up to the plate on many issues. Lady Bird Johnson advocated for environmental protection, followed by Pat Nixon encouraging volunteerism. Betty Ford furthered women's rights, and Rosalynn Carter looked to help those with mental disabilities. Nancy Reagan founded the Just Say No drug awareness campaign.

Laura Bush followed by creating the Ready to Read * Ready to Learn program promoting young children to learn to read. She also formed the National Book Festival in 2001, which included local author the late Sue Grafton among the featured speakers.

Hillary Clinton then sought to reform our health care system, and Michelle Obama tackled childhood obesity with Let’s Move. Melania Trump has announced her initiative Be Best as a way for children to deal with bullying and lead healthy lives.

Barbara Bush, however, worked and accomplished much to prove Dr. Clarke totally wrong. In the 1980s, she formed the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy to ensure that every child and adult, regardless of socioeconomic status, has access to educational opportunities.

When Bush became first lady (1989-1993), the foundation was her signature issue: “If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, we aren’t giving everyone a chance to succeed.”

When President George H.W. Bush took office, Barbara Bush upped her foundation goals. Among the many things accomplished, she advocated for the National Literacy Act of 1991 to strengthen adult literacy programs and increase universal literacy.

When the bill was signed by her husband, he said, “Literacy is where education begins. I first understood the truth of that statement by watching Barbara in her work that still continues, working her heart out for literacy.”

Over the years, the foundation has made possible the most basic of educational skills for children and parents — the ability to read and write. Low literacy levels are linked to poor health, fewer economic opportunities and a lifetime on welfare. The foundation still works to close that gap so more families can achieve the American Dream.

Local resident and author Fannie Flagg (The Whole Town’s Talking, 2016) not only supported Bush’s efforts but worked with her and got to know her. She helped in many ways, such as speaking at some of the foundations events.

“I was asked to do literacy programs with them, one at their house in Houston, one in the White House and one in Coral Beach," Flagg said. "We got to know one another and became good friends. When she gave me her phone number, she said, ‘If you call, I’ll answer.’ Same for the Bush number in Texas when I worked at the Texas Book Festival.”

Besides speaking at literacy gatherings, Flagg spent private time with the Bush family. She also got to know Neil Bush, the Bush’s fourth child.

“I sat at dinner with Neil a couple of times," Flagg said. "We had one thing in common — we both have worked to overcome dyslexia. It’s one of the reasons why Barbara chose to encourage literacy.”

Flagg has come a long way to overcome reading obstacles. She has written 10 novels, with Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987) becoming a classic and still selling.

As a child, Neil Bush’s mother helped teach him to read, not an easy undertaking. His son Pierce has had similar experiences, adding to Neil Bush’s passion to carry on his mother’s mission through Ignite! Learning in 1999. This educational software corporation that he co-founded provides multiple ways to teach reading and learning.

Flagg described Barbara Bush: “She was down to earth, a real person. When going on stage, she’d straighten her clothes and walk on as a strong woman. She was a no-nonsense woman with a strong sense of humor, and a dear friend.”

Flagg also was impressed watching Bush with her husband: “She looked at him with adoration. He adored her and family events. After one of our literacy events, he wrote a personal letter to thank me for helping.”

Barbara Bush’s efforts to demonstrate her beliefs were often game-changing. One such incident came two months after her husband’s inauguration in 1990. She visited Grandma’s House in Washington, D.C., one of the first homes for babies infected with AIDS or HIV. This was a time when they were considered gay diseases and highly contagious. While there, Bush held children, hugged them and publicly kissed one of them.

“She did it very boldly, compassionately, with no display of any fear or barrier,” Executive Director Joan McCarley said. “It changed the climate.”

One of the men praised her and said, “It’s terrific you’re holding these babies with AIDS, but the country sees them as innocent, and the rest of us with AIDS as guilty. The whole community here could use a hug from you.”

How did she react? She reached up and gave the HIV-diagnosed man a hug, using compassion to defy the current conventional wisdom that the disease was contagious.

Like championing for literacy, Barbara Bush made changes that are still happening today.

Flagg also has continued contributing efforts to encourage literacy. She spoke in April to the Santa Barbara Education Foundation’s annual dinner on the topic of their theme this year of making strides to improve literacy especially for those dealing with dyslexia. Per usual, Flagg’s talk was storytelling and drove home the importance of teaching everyone to read, a legacy she is leaving for our community.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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