Paterson’s Choice: The Feminist Versus the Woman

With a decision from the governor just days away, the list of prominent feminist types who have declared support for

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. Among the best-known are New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, 79-year-old Representative Louise Slaughter and former Kennedy White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

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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.

Here’s what author Erica Jong, one of the relatively few Kennedy-supporting feminists, has to say about that: “I think that the old-time feminists have their heads up their asses. And you can quote me. Basically, I think that Carolyn Maloney is a wonderful woman, and a wonderful politician and political leader. But electability matters and it is not the elite who elect.”

And here, by contrast, is what Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has to say about Caroline Kennedy: “I guess the thing about Caroline Kennedy is except for being a woman she has never expressed herself on any feminist issue. I mean, she has been–she hasn't done anything for women's rights in any area at least that I'm aware of–and that's what feminism is about. So, she fund-raised for the public schools, that's nice but–let's not kid ourselves.”

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 Hogeland, 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 Hogeland, 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.

Gary Ackerman, who has represented parts of Long Island and Queens for decades, recently drew parallels between Kennedy and pop singer Jennifer Lopez and, in a separate interview, Kennedy and Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The remark about J. Lo was obviously hyperbole, but the Palin comparison has stuck, and been repeated, although most renditions of the metaphor neglect to mention that in addition to several verbal tics, Palin was under investigation for abuse of power and under scrutiny for improper use of state funds at the time of the campaign. Caroline Kennedy hasn't been accused, even, of poor driving skills or meanness.

"I do there has been sexist stuff said about Caroline Kennedy in the course of this debate," said Friedman, citing talk of "Princess Caroline" and her pony. "You could make a critique based on legacy that isn't gendered, and I think that's a valid critique, but I think that it's been done in a gendered way."

More remarkable than Ackerman's insults is that Maloney, not long after, defended him. Asked on Errol Louis' radio show if Ackerman's comments were sexist, Maloney responded, "Gary Ackerman has been a strong supporter of women's rights," and added, "He is not a sexist."

There is so much diversity among "third wave" feminists that the term is actually more a useful indicator of age than political philosophy, which is partly why there seems to be no particular enthusiasm for Kennedy among the younger generation. First, she's not one of them. Second, she hasn't necessarily tried to reach them. And third, because this is a post-racial, post-gender generation, they aren't going to back her just because she's a woman.

Asked what politicians fit the "third wave" model, Jakobsen named Barack Obama.

"It's his style," she said, "but it's also this 'post' thing."

Friedman, the Feministing blogger, supported Obama in the primary. "On the issues, on their records, Clinton and Obama were not that far apart," she said. "At Feministing, I feel like that was a constant tracking point that we returned to during the primary." It was something that "trumped gender for us," Friedman said, adding, "Or for a lot of us, I should say—we're not a monolith."

Katie Roiphe, author of the controversial book The Morning After and daughter of author Anne Roiphe, agreed with the second wave-generation idea that Caroline Kennedy has done little to earn the seat. At the same time, she said, she doesn’t see any compelling need to support Carolyn Maloney – or any other woman – for the seat, either.

“That the mere fact of being a woman isn’t enough to inspire enormous feminist support is actually a good sign,” she said.

Referring to the self-identified feminists rallying for a female replacement for Hillary Clinton, she said, “I just think that the influence of that particular kind of feminism is less powerful than it was, and I think it’s a narrow-minded view that’s no longer capturing the public imagination in a way that it did, say, a decade ago.”

–additional reporting by Josh Benson

An earlier version of this article was published on on Jan. 12.

Paterson’s Choice: The Feminist Versus the Woman