01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Political Growth and Power of Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy has taken the first step in telling Governor David Paterson that she wants to be appointed to the Senate. She is not waiting to be asked, as some women tend to do.

The reaction has varied from enthusiastic to skeptical. The big question that is being raised is: does she have the experience to be a U.S. Senator?

It's possible that I am being too sensitive about gender bias, but is the "experience" question raised more frequently for women than it is for men? Men are often naturally assumed to have certain qualifications simply because of their gender, without having to prove it on their resumes. For instance, rarely is a man questioned whether he is tough enough for the job. (Except for a brief stint during the Democratic primary when that question was raised by some about Barack Obama.) Female politicians still have to strike just the right balance between being tough enough, and simultaneously feminine enough to be liked.

Clearly, Caroline Kennedy is no Sarah Palin. She is bright and articulate in ways that Palin could not acquire overnight. But just because Kennedy is attractive, some may assume she doesn't have the grit (one of Hillary Clinton's credentials) to run future tough campaigns. That would be a mistake.

Men are assumed to have financial and political skills, whether they have them or not. We are unaware of how often both men and women engage in gender stereotyping--until we are forced to stop and think. Some of that is occurring in regard to Caroline Kennedy's credentials. I have to ask myself, if her brother John were alive and declared his desire for the Senate seat, would the same questions be raised?

The "experience" question is being asked of Caroline Kennedy in a way it was never asked of her uncle Bobby--who also had never held prior elective office--because she has had different life experiences as a woman, wife, and mother than a man, who is a husband and father. Except for coming from a privileged background, her experiences are not dramatically different from other women who may seek political office. "Differently qualified" does not translate into "less qualified."

Like many women, admittedly those who can afford not to work outside the home, when her children were younger, she devoted her time largely to their upbringing. Over time, she became involved in the issues she cared about, primarily the quality of education, a natural progression towards community activism for women.

Now some may say her time spent raising children and being involved with New York City schools, and writing books, are not serious qualifications for public office. I would argue otherwise.

As an engaged member of her community she was in closer touch with New York's citizens than some elected officials who move from one campaign fundraiser to the next. Throughout her private life, she has developed networks, different but equally valuable as the networks men have established. She would immediately be comfortable in the world of power brokers, a skill that other political newcomers would take years to achieve.

Let's fast forward to the Obama campaign. When she decided to endorse Obama she made a clear break with her past, moving from the sidelines to the front lines. She said her children urged her to do so. In saying so, she acknowledged that she had entered a new stage of her life. It also shielded her from being viewed as a typical politician who may make endorsements for future political gain.

During those final intense weeks of the Democratic primary campaign she got a taste of real politics--the handshakes, the speeches, and yes, the roar of the crowd.

Most importantly, she discovered a new side to her own capability--that she not only could make a difference, but that she had to make a difference. It was worth it, she must have concluded, to take the risk to move squarely and boldly into the limelight, center stage. It is fair to ask, what exactly are the qualifications that a New York State Senator must have?

There are some things that can be learned fairly easily--the geography, personalities, and issues of upstate New Yorkers who are particularly fearful of being neglected, especially as they are experiencing tough times. The rules of the political game, both written and unwritten, also can be learned--and she will not lack for tutors. I suspect she is a quick study. What cannot be learned is a qualification that she has--a passion for public service. Part of it comes from her family, and much of it comes from within herself. Her father expressed his call to service through public office, as was expected for men of his time. Her mother too, had that calling, working in the arts, and almost single-handedly saving Grand Central Station, expressing herself as expected for women of her time. She learned from them both.

Until now, their daughter has expressed it in small manageable and somewhat private ways, now she appears to be ready to take the big leap into the public sphere.

In public life, it is not always what you already know that matters, it is what you don't know and must have the curiosity and sensitivity to find out. Can she understand the lives of people who are very different from her neighbors on Park Avenue; can she not only listen to their stories, but also achieve change for the better?

That remains an open question, but I surmise she must have learned some of that at her father's and her uncles' knees.

We will not fully get to know her between now and the Paterson appointment because she cannot openly campaign for the seat as Hillary Clinton did. It is considered "unseemly" to put pressure on the Governor by the candidate herself.

If I were a New Yorker, I would be willing to take the risk that she has the experience, fundamental values, intellectual curiosity, and empathy to become an excellent United States Senator.

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.

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