Barbara Bush’s Commencement Speech Wowed Wellesley Grads in 1990

When famed African-American novelist Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple," declined the invitation to give the 1990 Wellesley College commencement address, First Lady Barbara Bush, a Smith college dropout and homemaker, was not what the graduates had in mind.

Susan Reverby, Wellesley's first professor of women's studies, remembers it well.

"A group of seniors sent a petition — mind you, just a petition — to the college president, saying 'Look, she made it because she's the president's wife and this is not representative of what Wellesley teaches us.'"

The story made the school newspaper, then the MetroWest Daily News. Once the Boston Globe picked up the story, it wasn't long before the student snub of the first lady made headlines around the world.

"It went viral — the equivalent of viral — at that moment in time," Reverby added. "It was really a period where the debate about work and family, about your relationship, was very much what was going on in the culture."

With all three networks reporting live, Reverby says Bush gave a brilliant speech, making the point that true feminism meant the ability for women to choose one's future path.

Reverby says her favorite part of the speech came at the end, when Bush knew just how to connect with her audience.

"Somewhere out there in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president's spouse. And I wish him well," Bush said.

The graduates gave Bush a long and loud standing ovation.

The first lady was greeted back at the White House that night with a sign reading "A job Wellesley done."

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