WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, first ladies from different generations and opposing political parties, spoke with one voice Wednesday on the importance of educating women and girls worldwide, saying countries will be more prosperous as a result.
"You have to change attitudes before you can change behaviors," Mrs. Obama said.
She noted that some 60 million girls, including 30 million in sub-Saharan Africa, do not attend school. The first lady said that until global leaders understand that educating girls is as important as educating boys, "then we will have a lot of work to do."
"We do need to make sure worldwide that all women are valued," added Mrs. Bush.
The current and former first lady commented as they opened a program for more than two dozen spouses of the African officials who are participating in the third and final day of President Barack Obama's U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
They reprised an event they held in Tanzania last summer, focusing on meeting the needs of women and girls and sharing some of their experiences in the high-profile role of first lady.
The joint appearance also put on rare public display the warm relationship that has developed between the two since the change of power at the White House.
Mrs. Bush "set a high bar for me during her time in the White House" and has long been a source of inspiration, Mrs. Obama said.
"I consider her not just a role model but also a friend," the first lady said.
Between serious talk about education and how to keep their projects alive after leaving the White House, the two women also showed flashes of humor as they joked about White House life.
Former President George W. Bush's institute organized the July 2013 gathering of African first ladies and invited Mrs. Obama to participate after learning that she and her husband would be in Tanzania at the same time.
After Obama decided to hold a U.S. summit with African leaders, Obama aides reached out and proposed a repeat collaboration with Mrs. Bush.
Wednesday's program highlighted the role of first spouses and focused on public-private partnerships and investments in education, health and economic development.
"Taking care of women is good politics," the former president said.
He announced that a global health partnership that says it has helped screen more than 100,000 women in Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia for cervical cancer in the past three years was expanding into Namibia and Ethiopia.
Mrs. Obama, a 50-year-old Democrat from Chicago, remains grateful to Mrs. Bush, for showing her around the White House after Obama was elected in November 2008, among other courtesies.
According to aides, Mrs. Bush, a 67-year-old Republican from Midland, Texas, appreciates a lunch the Obamas hosted at the White House for the entire Bush family after the official portrait of the 43rd president was unveiled in 2012.
At Mrs. Bush's invitation, Mrs. Obama paid a second visit to the White House before her husband's January 2009 inauguration, this time bringing her mother, who now lives at the White House, and daughters Malia and Sasha. Bush's daughters, Barbara and Jenna, came from out of town to show the Obama girls parts of the White House where they had had fun.
In Tanzania, Mrs. Obama said Mrs. Bush was one of the reasons she wanted to participate in the program, although it took place the day the Obamas were departing Africa for home.
"I like this woman," the first lady said, gesturing toward Mrs. Bush. "It's hard to find people who know what you're going through, who understand the burdens and the fears and the challenges. ... It's kind of therapeutic."
"A sorority, I guess," suggested Mrs. Bush.