George W. Bush Institute Releases Study on First Ladies

The George W. Bush Institute has released a study on the role and influence of first ladies.

The report, titled A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies, was the topic of a livestreamed conversation March 28 between Laura Bush and Cherie Blair at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

“The Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative engages and supports first ladies so that they might use their unique platforms to improve the lives of the people in their countries,” Bush said. “We are happy to release this first-of-its-kind analysis so that everyone can learn about the important role first ladies have around the world.”

The Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) recently completed the research study, which examines the expanding role of first ladies, their leadership on critical issues, the challenges they face in leveraging this unique platform, and how first ladies overcome those challenges to make a difference on critical issues at local, national, and global levels.

The research profiles 14 first ladies and includes interviews with 11 current and former first ladies from around the world, providing unique case studies for women’s leadership more broadly. It was completed with donations from Exxon Mobil.

“Through our work, we found that there is an extremely limited field of research on global first ladies despite their incredible influence in addressing issues at local, national, and global levels,” said Natalie Gonnella-Platts, deputy director of the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute. “We set out to change that.”

Key findings include:

  • The role of the first lady is a position that has expanded throughout history and is largely influenced by the individual personalities of the women in the position, the environment within which they find themselves, and the changing role of women in society more broadly.
  • Regardless of political and cultural differences, common challenges prevail for first ladies across the globe. The role itself is often loosely defined. In many countries it lacks institutionalization, is constrained by gender stereotypes, and because the position exercises leadership without being elected, it can face a legitimacy gap.
  • Despite these challenges, first ladies continue to make an impact by leveraging key leadership attributes like personal proficiency; vision; strategic focus; time and talent management; and the ability to execute on objectives in order to address important issues at home and abroad.

“From Afghanistan to Uruguay, the research shows that first ladies play an important role in elevating the rights of women and girls,” said ICRW President Sarah Degnan Kambou. “We hope that this report helps spark an important conversation about how we can ensure that first ladies at home and abroad are able to use their platform to positively affect women, girls, and their families for generations to come.”

To watch the conversation, read the full report, or view an interactive digital essay on the research, visit

About the George W. Bush Institute:
Housed within the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the George W. Bush Institute is an action-oriented, nonpartisan policy organization with the mission of developing leaders, advancing policy, and taking action to solve today’s most pressing challenges. The work is achieved through three Impact Centers – Domestic Excellence, Global Leadership, and the Engagement Agenda – by which the Bush Institute engages the greater community with its important work. The Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative engages and supports first ladies from around the world to effectively use their unique platforms to advance issues for women and girls in their countries.

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