Who Got It Right as a Woman II: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Femininity is something very controversial in the discussion of feminism, as are traditional gender roles. Being ladylike–even the use of the word “lady”–can draw a lot of ire from many women. Being a woman who appeals to men is also often a taboo topic, as women are often told to be strong in themselves and never to need a man. Taking an interest in one’s appearance is also regarded as frivolous. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was feminine, somewhat traditional in her gender roles (at least earlier in her life), ladylike (she was, after all, the First Lady), a woman who appealed to many men and was thought quite desirable, and a global icon of style and elegance even decades after her death. She always seemed to have a suitable man on her arm to escort her to the American Ballet Theater, and made it classy to go to Studio 54. Jackie never quite defined herself as a feminist, though she supported Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, went back to work later in life, and did not marry her third “husband,” her beloved companion Maurice Tempelsman. And we can consider her a role model for women, someone who really “got it right” and was not bitter about her gender. Let us examine why.

Jackie had conviction. From the time she was small, she knew what she liked and what her tastes were. She read Chekhov as a child, had a passion for the arts, and a longing to go to Paris. She carried her passions with her when she went to the White House: she restored that historic mansion, she brought the fine arts to great visibility, making it fashionable to be cultured, and thanks to her efforts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was founded. After a level of a few years, she eventually found her way back to her love of books, becoming a well-respected editor in New York. She fought for causes she believed in, like the preservation of Grand Central Terminal. Despite that infamous whispering voice, she was no shrinking violet, and she knew herself and her mind. That is why Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie was so poor, for she conveyed none of the strength of Mrs. Kennedy.

She was emotionally intelligent. Jack Kennedy’s presidency would not have been the same without her. As recently released audiotapes reveal, she was a shrewd observer of politics and politicians, seeing through people’s façades and offering her own opinions. She raised two children well, putting their well-being as her priority, knowing that extensive contact with the Kennedy clan would possibly lead them into a downward spiral like Ethel Kennedy’s kids. But she did not shelter her children, sending them out on their own as teens and young adults to spend time in Appalachia or India. Jackie wanted her children to toughen up and not to be pampered, to get out there and see the world and people from all walks of life.

She was highly cultured. Though she gave the appearance of being a mere clothes horse, Jackie was very well read in the classics, history, and spoke other languages like French. She appreciated great art, classical music, and clothing design. It was not enough to be an American first lady; she was global, show the world how enjoyable it was to visit other countries, make it admirable to be more than just a socialite. Thanks to her, high culture in America experienced a renaissance, something that was so necessary after the war and America’s revival. Later in life, after being widowed twice, she became a book editor and finally was able to use her intellect that she had had to hide away as the first lady and as the wife of powerful men.

She moved with the times. The beribboned 1930’s girl with her horses at shows, the elegant debutante of the 40s, the prim and proper young socialite of the 50s, Jackie Kennedy reflected the zeitgeist of America. Through the 60s, she went from graceful First Lady observing protocol in her manner and her dress to jet setter in minidresses without stockings who enjoyed dancing late night on a yacht or walking barefoot in Capri. And when she was widowed again in the 70s, she showed us how to adapt: she put on pants and a sweater, went downtown to a high-rise office, and became a single working mother. She enjoyed the company of men, but she also came into her own at this time, befriending Andy Warhol and enjoying New York City and her career. And then as relationship conventions changed, her companion Maurice moved in with her and lived with her for the rest of her life. They never married, despite Jackie being a devout Catholic. And yet it always remained acceptable, for Jackie was always dignified.

She promoted diversity decades before it was fashionable. She brought African-American opera singer Grace Bumbry to the White House, was a friend of gay Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and adored Nehru, just as he adored her. She had a lifelong love of India and Russia and traveled there multiple times. 

She maintained a sense of mystery. That Sphinx-like smile the lack of interviews, the low voice–it all added up to create a personality whom we wanted to get to know, but who did not want us to get to know her past a certain point. Tabloids speculated on every aspect of her life, and yet she remained silent. In an era where everything is on Instagram and celebrities make candles named after body parts, Jackie remains a paragon of how to keep to oneself and let only those who are close into one’s confidences.

She enjoyed being a woman. Jackie loved fashion, decorating, motherhood, and marriage. She loved presenting herself elegantly, be it in Oleg Cassini or jodhpurs. She loved it when men took an interest in her, offered her courtesies, drove her places. In short, she loved men. Even as she always did as she wanted, being her own kind of feminist, she still always loved men. Various writers have described her as “seductive” or “a geisha”–there is nothing wrong with that. She often used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted, and even charmed Nikita Khrushchev.

American feminism can often be very prescriptive as to what is correct or not regarding how we present ourselves as a woman. If we dress too nicely, we might not be taken seriously enough. We are forced to work in a work culture that is really set up for men, and that often penalizes us for wanting to be who we are, be it a tomboy or a princess or anything in between. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis showed us that we can embrace our womanhood and it does not mean any compromise of strength or independence. She showed us how to have a will of steel wrapped in a velvet glove. The fact that we still admire her decades later shows us that she was a timeless role model as a woman.

The Artist in America

If the “business of America is business,” as has been so famously said about this nation, then it is no wonder that artists do not feature in the general vocabulary and Zeitgeist in our culture. Artists are seen as something peripheral, errant, irresponsible. Art is something to be done “on the side,” for it is rare to find the artist who makes his or her living through his or her craft. Artists feature among the uninsured in this country, or the underinsured, because certainly there must be a high risk for a self-employed with paint artist who stands in front of a canvas all day (note sarcasm here). The National Endowment for the Arts seems to be in a perpetual state of doom due to spending cuts as well as censors who fear the visual portrayal of depravity. Certainly, there are fellowships and MacArthur awards and grants given to creative folk, but generally these do not sustain the artist, who must seek funds from multiple sources or undesirable jobs. And yet, oddly, we have one of the finest museums in the world—-the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—-and stunning collections in equally stunning museums and private collections around the country. Many museums were really founded upon a given collection by a wealthy individual or family. And given our ethnic and social diversity, we have probably the widest range of types of art on display and for sale in the United States. Want to invest in modern Native American? Check. John Singer Sargent portraits? Check. An installation of gigantic slabs of metal by Richard Serra? Check. You want it, we got it. And how many millions of people around the world own an iconic silver laptop or iPod with that familiar white fruit logo? Don’t forget—-it’s as American as Apple!

But we must go further and examine the mentality of our culture and why art, artistry, and aesthetics are not part of our daily vocabulary. Even people who are well educated and prosperous might simply be too pragmatic to appreciate that which is abstract and inexplicable. It doesn’t “make sense” to many people, it is “too emotional,” or, worst of all, “weird.” We do not come from a culture where there was an Oscar Wilde in our past, or huge movements in our daily culture that supported aestheticism and beauty. “Art for art’s sake” seems like a wasteful mentality to our practical, Anglo-Saxon values. Writing a folk song about a flower might seem “sappy,” and in no other country can you actually buy clothing from a category called “business attire.” Everything has to serve a purpose, because time is money, and marketing studies have calculated every last color detail down to the Pantone wheel as to what will sell best. In a culture that is so calculated and precise, there is very little room for the imprecise, the imaginative, the dreamy, or the ephemeral. When we have so many social problems and inequalities to solve—-very necessary tasks, indeed—-how can we afford the luxury of artistic pleasure?

America, since its inception, has valued a sense of justice, fairness, intelligence, hard work, equality, individualism, optimism, efficiency, and wealth. And ironically, those qualities are what can make a great artist. The artist needs the drive to succeed, the discipline to work hard, a uniqueness of vision, the funds to obtain the materials, and the boldness to ask the world for the compensation he or she deserves, is due. And the artist also needs supporters of the arts, in audiences, visitors to galleries, and scholars like Maxine Greene or Camille Paglia who bridge the gap between thought and the arts. We need the Steve Jobses and David Kelleys of America to link stunning form with necessary function.

And most of all, we need children. We need the child in each of us, the child that still exists even in the most boring office worker in his or her cubicle, the child that once experienced such joy in dipping a brush in red tempera paint, mushing Play-Doh between her hands, or spending hours hunched over a notebook with a pencil in his hand. We need to encourage everyone to keep the creative child as a part of our lives, and to express that naturally art-loving side of ourselves, especially as the world becomes more and more technology-oriented. To quote the inimitable Oscar Wilde, “Art is the only serious thing in the world.” If only more people lived that philosophy.