01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Argument for a Senator Caroline Kennedy

I was intrigued to learn that Caroline Kennedy expressed an interest in being appointed to Senator Hillary Clinton's New York Senate seat. Precisely how strong that interest is, is hard to know, but I suspect that if she wants to be in the United States Senate, Governor David Paterson would have a hard time turning her down.

Her appointment would disappoint many New York political figures who are vying for the same job, including Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Kirsten Gillibrand, not to mention Andrew Cuomo. They have the argument that they have earned a Senate seat. In their eyes, Caroline's appointment would be equivalent to royalty claiming its rightful domain. Not fair.

Yet, there is a good argument to be made that she would be the best person to fill that Senate seat. There are now 17 women in the United States Senate. With Hillary's resignation, there will be 16, the same number that existed before November 4. A further argument would be that she could afford to campaign again for the seat in two years. But what interests me most is that the Kennedy legacy has been almost totally male, except for Kathleen Kennedy Townshend, a daughter of Bobby Kennedy, who served as Maryland's Lt. Governor and lost her race for Governor in 2002.

It was the Kennedy men who were groomed for politics, starting with Joe, who was his father's pride and joy. After his death in World War II, the father turned to John and groomed him for the Presidency. Next came Teddy. And then Bobby, who served as JFK's Attorney General and then as a New York Senator until his assassination in 1968. The women and girls in the Kennedy family were in the background as good political spouses were in those days.

The evolution of Caroline Kennedy from socialite, mother, volunteer, campaigner for Barack Obama, and finally, into a candidate herself would be a significant transformation. She got a taste of what it feels like to wield power when she convinced uncle Teddy to endorse Barack Obama. One of the ironies of her appointment to Hillary's seat is that it was this timely endorsement that may have pulled Obama ahead of Clinton in the primaries.

If Caroline Kennedy decides she wants the position, and if David Paterson agrees, she will send a message to women like her that says, "It's fine to volunteer, it's fine to be on the sidelines and work for the election of others, but I know where the real power is, and that is having a vote in the United States Senate. I could do more for the issues I care about, like education and health care, if I'm on the inside rather than applying pressure from the outside." That is an important message for women who work on issues that concern them, but stop just short of opening the door to the smoke filled rooms (which now have No Smoking signs) where the action is.

If John F.Kennedy were alive today, I wonder what he would think. He was a ladies' man in the old fashioned definition of the term, which had nothing to do with empowering women.

I'd like to think that he would have changed, as so many fathers of his generation have, and would want the same things for his daughter as he had wished for his son--to make a contribution to her country, acting on the famous phrase from his inaugural, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

If Caroline Kennedy heeds these words, she just might go for it.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.