Caroline Kennedy's Biological Clock Powers Up

December 18, 2008

My first reaction was outrage when I heard the news that Caroline Kennedy is "campaigning" to have herself appointed to Hillary Clinton’s New York U.S. Senate seat. 

“What credentials does she have," I asked myself, "other than being the last living descendent of the Camelot era of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?" OK, she holds a law degree and she has certainly been “soaked” in the Kennedy family business of politics and governing her entire life.  But, I also wondered, “Where has she been for the last few decades?  And what makes her think she can stroll into such a powerful position just because she’s the closest thing America has to royalty?”

      DEVALUING WOMEN’S WORK:  Once I finished venting, though, I started thinking:  “But Anne, what about that point you’re making in the book you’re writing on women’s leadership? You know, the one about how our American culture devalues women’s work?” 

We routinely recognize men’s military and sports experience as valuable credentials directly transferrable to leadership.  Many a man has leveraged both on his way to political office.  Yet, we place little value (other than Hallmark cards and profuse ‘thank yous’) on the essential work of parenting, the lion's share of which is done by women.  The same goes for the millions of hours of unpaid volunteer work for hundreds of thousands of non-profit boards and community organizations.  We have barely begun to value the skills women hone in those arenas.  

    CULTURE AND POWER:  We have a wonderful myth in our culture about the American dream.  Barak Obama epitomizes this inspirational story that anyone can achieve anything in America – even the presidency – if he, and now she, works hard.  It’s an inspiring idea that gives us all hope.  Yet the truth is that most people who achieve power, throughout history, are born into it, or grow up very close to it.  Whether your pedigree is English, African or Jordanian  royalty;  the Mexican or South American ruling classes; or the Bush, Bhutto, or Kennedy political dynasties, more paths to power are about family connections than bootstraps.  

Yes, Caroline Kennedy, who moved into the White House at age 3, was born into power.  She is comfortable with it and, I suspect, knows how to use it.  She has lived her entire life in the world of Washington politics, governing, and the media spotlight.  But never before has she openly aspired to power.  

 So what made this very private woman, who has been focused on raising her 3 children (Rose (20), Tatiana (18) and Jack (15), decide to start "powering up"? Was it the urging of her uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor? Was it her activism with the Obama campaign and a sense of new possibilities for our nation that she wants to be part of?  Or was it, as I suspect, her biological clock?  "I really felt it was a crucial moment, and if I had something that I believed in, then I really owed it to myself to express that," she told Time magazine. "I recently turned 50, so I figured, I'd better get going — what am I waiting for?" 

 So what are her credentials? Kennedy's undergraduate degree is from Harvard; her law degree from Columbia University. With expertise in constitutional law she has co-authored two books on civil liberties. As vice chair of The Fund for Public Schools she has helped raise more than $64 million for New York city’s public schools. She also serves on the Commission on Presidential Debates and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  And let’s not underestimate the strength of character that comes from being tested by fire in the many ways she has, including losing her father and uncle to assasinations, her mother to an early death and her brother and sister-in-law to tragedy.  For more, here’s her Wikapedia profile.

Political insiders are predicting Ms. Kennedy will be appointed by Governor Paterson in January to the Senate seat once held by her uncle, Robert Kennedy.  She would then need to run for re-election in 2010, plenty of time for New York voters to make up their own minds whether she has the skills and passion to match her resume and family legacy.    

     WHY WOMEN'S POWER MATTERS:  Our culture is still very ambiguous about women and power.  We're only going to get past that when more women start thinking like the Right Honorable Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, who sees American culture as very macho. “Look, power exists.  Somebody is going to have it," she told me.  "If you would exercise it ethically, why not you?’ I love power. I’m power hungry because when I have power I can make things happen, can serve my community, can influence decisions, I can accomplish things.” 

  When I see Caroline Kennedy, I see a brilliant, highly-educated, parent, community leader and engaged citizen who does not need or seek power for personal affirmation.  I see a woman leader who would bring a depth of unique experience, perspective and commitment to essential human priorities.  Yes, hers has not been the traditional (primarily male) path to power.  But women’s leadership is in its infancy and we need many more role models of women aspiring for power – not for ego – but because it is the currency for getting things done.  

 I believe each of us should aspire to work at our highest level of capability.  Caroline Kennedy moves in a different galaxy than most people, and would be among her peers in the U.S. Senate.   By the time I finished thinking all of this through, I ended up viewing Kennedy’s decision as one of leadership rather than entitlement.  The rhythms of women's lives are very different from those of men.  I can't think of anyone more perfectly postioned to show America's women achievers that there is more than one path -- and timetable -- to leadership.

 Now, here's a counterpoint opinion published in the New York Times. 

Stay in touch with Anne

Sign up here to receive special messages from Anne about current topics.