With a decision from the governor just days away, the list of prominent feminist types who have declared support for Caroline Kennedy to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat is a short one. The best-known are probably New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, 79-year-old Representative Louise Slaughter and former Kennedy White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
In the meantime, the women’s rights establishment is placing its hopes elsewhere. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and the National Women’s Political Caucus have all endorsed Representative Carolyn Maloney.
Maloney, who turns 60 next month, was elected to Congress in 1992—the first woman ever to represent Manhattan’s Silk Stocking district. The former chair of the House Caucus on Women’s Issues, she was instrumental in passing a bill that pushed for federal funding to clear a backlog of rape kits, an effort later depicted in the Lifetime movie A Life Interrupted: The Debbie Smith Story. She just wrote a book called Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women’s Lives Aren’t Getting Any Easier.
She belongs to what is referred to in academic circles as "second wave feminism." This is the generation of Steinem, of Betty Friedan, of Billy Jean King, and even of Hillary Clinton. These are the women that pushed for equality in the workplace, for reproductive rights, for women’s studies departments at colleges and universities.
Kennedy, 51, is younger than this generation, more a beneficiary of its work than a partner, and when Gloria Steinem, last weekend, endorsed Maloney for Senate and suggested Kennedy run for Maloney’s House seat (in a nice symmetry, Maloney represents the district where Kennedy lives), she seemed to be delivering a message: earn it.
If this reminds you a bit of the Democratic presidential primary campaign of Hillary Clinton—the first and only female senator from New York—against Barack Obama, it should.
"Lots of feminists who backed Hillary Clinton felt that [Obama] had jumped the queue," said Ann Friedman, an editor at the blog Feministing, who thinks there is a similar sentiment among some feminists about Caroline Kennedy. "I think those things are present in their opposition [to Kennedy]."
Opposition might not be quite the right word, since few of these women have offered any direct criticism of Kennedy. Earlier this week on a tour of upstate New York that roughly followed Kennedy’s own travel, Maloney was asked if Kennedy’s celebrity bothers her.
"As President Carter said, ‘Life isn’t always fair,’" she responded. Asked about her chances against Kennedy, she added, "If it’s a celebrity beauty contest, I’m definitely not going to win."
This is pretty hard-bitten stuff from a wealthy Upper East Sider, and it’s not unlike Clinton’s presidential campaign, during which the former first lady sometimes projected perhaps a somewhat inflated sense of having overcome incredibly long odds, given that she had also been a prominent Democrat for decades.
"I think as a general rule, women are more prone to a question of when they deserve it," said Friedman. In this case, she went on, "It’s not strictly an issue of qualifications, it’s not strictly an issue of experience. Often those things are often bound up in the question of ‘deserve,’ and I think Caroline Kennedy kind of brings that to the fore."
Kennedy is, in some ways, a good post-feminist icon. Younger women, studies show, don’t identify with the term "feminism," but they are rich with the less aggressive "gender consciousness."
Lisa Maria Hogelund, an assistant professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Cincinnati, wrote about this in an oft-cited essay for Ms. magazine in 1994.
"One measure of feminism’s success over the past three decades is that women’s gender consciousness—our self-awareness as women—is extremely high," she wrote.
Feminism is gender consciousness, according to Hogelund, but the reverse isn’t true.
"Feminism politicizes gender consciousness, inserts it into a systematic analysis of histories and structures of domination and privilege," she wrote.
"This is in one way the result of the success of feminism," said Professor Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. "That there should be more than one woman who is qualified potentially for this seat is good, right?"
"Given that," Jakobsen went on, "then how do people break down? And what are the other divisions besides gender that come to the fore? [I] think that Carolyn Maloney’s experience is really crucial. And also the work that she has done—she has been a leader, certainly in New York State, in terms of any issue having to do with women—the person you would turn to is Carolyn Maloney."
She added, "Those haven’t been Caroline Kennedy’s major concern."
They haven’t, and that in part reflects Kennedy’s own generation. She came of age when feminism was established, and when the political activism of the second wave was waning.
"I wonder if it’s indicative of what’s happening in feminism right now, and I think there’s something to that," said Alyson Cole, an associate professor of political science at CUNY’s Graduate Center and Queens College. "I think that there is a way in which it’s almost switching—the younger generation’s more open to Caroline Kennedy, and sort of the idea that woman takes a woman’s seat and that seems sort of appropriate."
"The question is, does she really have the experience?" Cole added. "And I think the argument could be made that, for what she needs to do, and especially for Hillary’s seat, she’s not really that different."
In many ways, the public debates about Kennedy’s candidacy among women have very little to do with her. It’s Americans wrestling with the idea of political dynasty, or celebrity culture, or wealth.
In The New York Times last weekend, Lisa Belkin wrote about women returning to work after having children–although that’s not precisely what Kennedy is doing, and she has never made any related claim.
In another Times piece, Susan Dominus implied that Kennedy’s brother, John, would have been better received and wondered if there is a "vague, collective longing" for her to remain the "dignified, tasteful Kennedy," although it’s not clear if Kennedy herself is interested in the same.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, an outspoken feminist often cited as part of the "third wave," does not think Kennedy is being treated with any sexism. "No other women with less blue blood could even attempt to get away with what she seems to in fact be getting away with," Wurtzel wrote in a recent piece for the Daily Beast. "This is not sexism; this is reality."
"One of the things the American public has problems thinking about is a combination of a question of privilege," said Professor Jakobsen. "So Kennedy means privilege—that’s what they stand for." She added, "It’s either privilege or sexism—it can’t be both. Very hard for people to think both those things at the same time."
The equation for Maloney is a less complicated one. She is the embodiment of a feminism that has a history, that is clearly defined and that is, frustratingly for her supporters, less politically relevant than it once was.
"I think," said Professor Jakobsen, "That what they feel is that the reason Carolyn Maloney doesn’t have a shot is because she has been so strongly identified with women’s issues. Because she was in the House starting at a time when women couldn’t think about succeeding in the highest offices in the nation—and they feel that she’s being overlooked because of that set of associations. That in some sense she’s trapped in a historical moment that is no longer the case, but with which she is associated. And I think that makes them angry."
Certainly, there seems to be little equivalent indignation among traditional feminists on Kennedy’s behalf.