First Ladies, from Beijing to Washington and Amman, are often in the news for their sartorial choices—we’re obsessed with Michelle Obama’s sheath dresses, Valerie Trierweiler’s French flair, and Peng Liyuan’s fabulous overcoats. But the focus on their fashion often crowds out talk of their passion projects—they’re iconic for their appearance, but what about their impact? Obama’s muscular arms have surely inspired as much ink to flow as her White House garden and her push to tackle childhood obesity. Likewise, we remember Laura Bush as much as for her perfectly pressed red power suits as for her literacy projects and her work on HIV/AIDS prevention.
Former RAND analyst Cora Neumann, for one, was fed up with this focus on fashion. While First Ladies may be “accidental” leaders—who land in a “job that has no description,” Neumann jokes—they have clout and potential. As Betty Ford once quipped, they have “the power of the position, a power which could be used to help.”
This power to help is what Neumann wants to tap into—to help First Ladies address needs in education, health, literacy and economic development in their countries.
But First Ladies often have fewer resources to deploy than their husbands—particularly in developing countries. That’s why in 2009, Neumann and her colleague Anita McBride concocted the African First Ladies Initiative, which connects the First Ladies of the U.S. and the U.K. with First Ladies from other parts of the world to mentor, advise, and provide resources. The First Ladies’ staffs get training as well, in an affiliated school. Given that Obama, Bush, Sarah Brown and Cherie Blair have all participated in this do-good mission, it’s clearly a bipartisan affair. The focus is on impact, not politics.
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