ABUJA, Nigeria – Laura Bush, the librarian-turned-first lady who's often seen reading aloud to children, is raising her voice on women's issues around the world.
In travels over the past 10 months from Afghanistan to the Middle East to Africa, Mrs. Bush has broadened her focus on education, her trademark issue, to push equal opportunities for women in nations where they often have second-class status.
Mrs. Bush, soft-spoken and polite, has found herself in frank chats abroad about sexuality, AIDS and rape in addition to less-sensitive topics like helping women gain access to education, health care and jobs.
It was the jarring accounts of severe repression and brutality against women in Afghanistan that piqued her interest in women's lives abroad.
"I think that what happened to me really happened also to the other people in the United States," Mrs. Bush said, reflecting on her plane during a four-day swing through West Africa, a trip that ends on Wednesday.
"After Sept. 11, when we all looked at Afghanistan and saw the oppression of women there, it awakened a lot of people to the plight of women around the world," she said.
The first lady took just two solo foreign jaunts — both to Europe — during President Bush's first term. So far in his second, she's made four trips abroad to talk mostly about women's issues and education.
"I would say there's a B plot that's been going on with Laura Bush that maybe people haven't been noticing," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian and student of America's first ladies. She's shining a light on inequality among women living in traditionally male-dominated cultures. He's dubbed it a kind of "international feminism."
Mrs. Bush is among the most private of American first ladies.
"The hints are that she is somewhat more liberal than her husband, and this interest in women's issues may be a way for her to realize some of her own interests," said Barbara Kellerman, author of "All the President's Kin."
But Kellerman adds: "I would not put Laura Bush at the forefront of the rank of well-known American feminists. ... It's all very ladylike and very proper. I don't mean to diminish its symbolic importance, which I think is of some value, but I think we should label it accurately."
Mrs. Bush isn't the type to grab a placard and run out to join a women's rights march. She takes a much softer approach.
Noelia Rodriguez, the first lady's former director of communications, said Mrs. Bush often gets her work done with a "velvet hammer."
Mrs. Bush's advisers say privately that while she's stepped up her international travel, she hasn't turned her back on her beloved domestic projects — fostering literacy and preventing young boys and girls from choosing lives of crime and drugs.
There's no second-term makeover under way for Mrs. Bush, they say. Nor is she being sent out to do public events to score political points with women voters.
The first lady is genuinely interested in seeing a better life for disenfranchised women, they say. Her interest in Africa, in particular, is fueled by her daughter Barbara, who recently worked in an AIDS pediatrics hospital in South Africa.
Mrs. Bush began her second-term travel in Afghanistan in April 2005. She visited a teacher training institute in Kabul and talked positively about how millions of women and girls had returned to work and school after the Taliban regime was ousted. Still, especially outside the capital, women are forced to adhere to restrictive Islamic traditions, including wearing burkas.
A month later in Jordan, Mrs. Bush told Middle Eastern leaders that if the right to vote is to have meaning, it cannot be limited to men. "Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression," she said.
On her first trip to Africa in July 2005, Mrs. Bush urged South African women to take control of their sex lives and advertised a new initiative to provide real protections for abused women.
In Rwanda, she promoted the rights of women by standing with female legislators. And she offered hope to girls seeking education and a new way of life following a 100-day massacre in 1994 when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by the Hutu militia. Many women raped during the conflict contracted AIDS.
Mrs. Bush made this trip to Africa to witness women's history. On a muggy afternoon in Liberia's capital of Monrovia, she applauded the swearing-in of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the new president of Liberia — and the first women ever elected to lead a nation in Africa.
Later, she cited Sirleaf is an example for young women around the world of a woman who rose to the top of society through hard work, a belief in democracy and education.
"The question we must answer now is, how do we nurture the development of the next generation of women leaders in Africa?"' Mrs. Bush said in prepared remarks Wednesday. "The answer begins with education."
Ritu Sharma, director of Women's Edge Coalition, which oversees how U.S. international aid programs work for women, applauded Mrs. Bush for talking about empowering women, but she worries it's just part of a diplomacy campaign to burnish America's image abroad.
Mrs. Bush's words need to be backed by funding, Sharma said. Her organization is waiting to see how well women and girls fare in the next budget Bush submits to Congress.