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Why Caroline Kennedy's Decision To Step Down Benefits Women In Politics

By January 26, 2009

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Last week, upon hearing Caroline Kennedy had dropped out of consideration for the Senate seat for New York, my English major mind immediately paraphrased a famous poem by T.S. Eliot: "This is the way her bid ends Not with a bang but a whimper."

Her short stint as a maybe wannabe politico was not inconsistent with her past.

The Family Name
As an adult, she shunned the limelight and was more often than not referred to as 'Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.' So her decision to step into the full glare of media scrutiny and pursue the New York senate seat as 'Caroline Kennedy' felt forced to me. It seemed as if she'd been nudged by family guilt and her uncle's failing health...or been impetuously seized by the unexpected expression of a long-dormant political gene that suddenly switched itself on.

I was wrong about one thing -- her name. She didn't drop the 'Schlossberg' in her bid for the Senate, because she had never taken it legally. She has always been Caroline Kennedy.

Apparent Ambivalence
But did she really want to run? It looked as if her heart wasn't in it. Her few media appearances were lackluster. She avoided reporters' questions. And she was mocked for not being particularly well-spoken (a weakness I can easily forgive, as many a gifted writer is not equally adept when it comes to public speaking). The terse statement issued at the time of her decision to withdraw sheds no light on why she suddenly entered -- and just as abruptly left -- the political arena.

A Traditional Path
If Kennedy had been appointed and subsequently served as Senator, she would have followed a time-honored tradition that once offered women the only way into those male bastions of leadership and power -- through dynasty and legacy. How many female world leaders have become heads of state because their fathers or husbands died prematurely, leaving a physical and emotional void for a daughter or wife to step in and fill?

Many women have risen to prominence this way -- and proved themselves more than capable. But today women holding political office in the US are elected on the basis of their own merits, strengths, and accomplishments, not because of any coattail effect.

The Kennedy Mystique
To surrender the seat of the junior senator of New York to a 'legacy' candidate -- who seemed at best unsure and at worst unqualified and unsuited -- because of the so-called 'Kennedy mystique' would have disrespected every elected female politician in this country who worked hard to get where she is on her own terms. And it would have launched Caroline Kennedy's political career on a sour note. Her appointment would have been shadowed by the complaint that 'she wouldn't have gotten where she was if she hadn't been a Kennedy.'

Selection Rather Than Election
There has been, and will continue to be, speculation as to why she left. While some dabble in conjecture, others float ugly rumors. What has happened to Caroline Kennedy is exactly what she's sought to avoid all these years. If we were willing to see her enter politics at the upper levels primarily on the strength of her family name, then our respect for that family name should extend to our allowing her to decide she's not suited at this time for this role, without our second-guessing her reasons.

Let's simply acknowledge that she made a wise decision that benefits her and other women in politics. To ascend to high office by selection rather than election would have placed her in a difficult situation. By stepping down and allowing other elected New York officials the opportunity to be seriously considered, she exemplified humility, grace, and the characteristic Kennedy spirit of service to country over service to self.

Photo © Win McNamee/Getty Images

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