Kathleen Parker

As Mrs. Bush noted Monday, health is a freedom issue. To be free, one must first be alive. Then, one must be educated.

The U.N. reports that 774 million people worldwide cannot read or write. Of those, two-thirds are women. Seventy-five million children don't attend school.

The first lady, who is an honorary ambassador for the U.N. Literacy Decade, spoke earlier this month at the U.N. about the importance of closing the gender gap in literacy. "If women are educated, everything across the board improves for their families," she said.

Indeed, it is widely understood among international humanitarian groups that the most effective way to reduce poverty and disease is to educate women.

In Afghanistan, where Laura Bush has traveled three times, impressive strides are being made in education and equality. Today, one-third of the more than 6 million Afghan children in school are girls.

Many readers may be learning these things for the first time and wonder why. In part, it may be because Mrs. Bush's demure librarian-teacher persona has minimized her appeal to the media. But Bush's Texas manners should not be confused with passivity. She is a serious player whose White House tenure provides lessons for the next first lady.

Among them is one Mrs. Bush wishes she had learned sooner -- that the first lady has a bully pulpit and should use it. Although she gave the first-ever radio address by a first lady in 2001, urging support for Afghan women, Bush didn't hit her stride until her husband's second term.

Did she ever. Her mission has been anything but modest: to save women, educate girls, end poverty, reduce disease, expand democracy and promote freedom.

Women may not save the world -- at least not without the help of enlightened men -- but history will judge that one Laura Bush did her part.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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