NEW YORK — With her Camelot pedigree and Park Avenue address, Caroline Kennedy is not exactly the average American woman. But many women identify with her impulse to enter the work force after two decades of child rearing.
Kennedy's bid for the Senate has reignited the "mommy wars" between mothers with careers and those who take a break from paid employment. Like Kennedy, many women face resentment when they return to the work force after raising kids and doing volunteer work.
"She's a Kennedy, but she's a lot like us," was the headline of a Dec. 28 column by Anne Glusker in The Washington Post. "If you strip away the glamour, the name and the money, then Caroline is ... me. And many of my friends."
Kennedy, 51, graduated from Columbia Law School but never practiced law. She raised three children, wrote and edited several books, served on the boards of public service organizations and worked as the unpaid chief of fundraising for the New York City schools.
Now that Kennedy's three children are adults or nearly so, she is opting to get back onto the career track, though on a much grander scale than most women.
Some experts who study women's careers see Kennedy as a potential model for women without her connections.
"My research shows that almost 40 percent of women do take an off ramp and do all kinds of things in the private sphere, whether it's saving the wetlands or running the PTA," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and the author of "Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success." "But none of that gives them much credit in the world of work."
Critics of Kennedy's sudden interest in the Senate see a dilettante with a thin resume. One Queens congressman likened her to Jennifer Lopez, suggesting Kennedy's only asset is name recognition. She has been mocked for being aloof in interviews and using too many "you knows."
Writing Tuesday in the online magazine Salon, Rebecca Traister disputed the notion that Kennedy has much in common with her stay-at-home peers. Traister complained that Kennedy has asked to be appointed to the Senate by New York Gov. David Paterson instead of first running in an election.
Kennedy is "doing the equivalent of a stay-at-home mom trying to re-enter the work force by calling the CEO of her desired company, casually suggesting to him or her that she might like a top executive berth, and reminding them that her family's name is on the door of the building and that her uncle was a founding partner," Traister said.
But Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College and the author of "Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home," said that Kennedy's career arc is not unusual for a woman of her background. She said Kennedy's volunteer work, including raising tens of millions for education, has probably been good training for the Senate.
"There's this idea that because she hasn't been working for pay, that the skills she's accrued are somehow worth less," she said.
Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of the anthology "Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families," said that among some mothers who never stepped off the career ladder, there is "definitely resentment" that Kennedy is being considered for the Senate. But Steiner said Kennedy is representative of many women.
"You have these incredibly talented stay-at-home moms, and I think we'd be idiots as a country not to welcome them back to the work force," she said.
Some critics say Kennedy should start lower than the Senate for her first elective office. Others counter that there is no one path to the Senate.
Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman compared Kennedy's qualifications favorably with those of "Saturday Night Live" comic Al Franken, a political rookie who apparently won a hotly contested Senate election in Minnesota.
Bill Bradley, who won a Senate seat from New Jersey in 1978 after a Hall of Fame basketball career with the New York Knicks, said he faced opposition from political veterans who told him, "You need to pay your dues, you need to wait, you need to run for county freeholder and then state Senate."
But once in the U.S. Senate, Bradley resolved to be a workhorse and not just a show horse, he said in an interview.
"The one thing about being a senator that always pays off is persistence," he said. "Can you be there in the hearings to lay the groundwork for the amendment that you might offer down the road? Can you do the work?"