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.

First Lady, Second Priority: The Dumbing-Down of the President’s Wives

My college reunion books are peppered with comments by admirable women who left their careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers who say their children are more satisfying than their job ever could be. These are women who were at the top of their game with their careers, highly educated women who are as intelligent as any man and still bring life into this world. A magnificent combination!

However, what I cannot understand is this: the forced exile from the workplace of our First Ladies. In the recent administrations, the First Ladies have been highly intelligent, educated, well-read, sophisticated, and professional career women who often took a backseat to help further the political aspirations of their husbands. Some of these women could have been presidents themselves. True, the presidential families may have wished for one parent to be more present and at home for the children while the other parent is away traveling the country or the globe, attending summits and talks or attempting to rectify communities after natural disasters.

But we are not talking about normal families here; we are talking about families that have access to literally the best resources in the world, who have ability to pull strings to have any lifestyle adaptations they wish, and whose family dynamics will naturally be different than ours. These families could have a mother who works a professional job part-time, or from home, or who is very vocal about political interests of her own. This does not have to be a conflict of interest. Instead, these women are stifled for whatever reasons. The bottom line is that John Q. Public and the American establishment still cannot accept a First Lady who pulls her own weight equal to her husband’s. The First Lady cannot be involved in politics like her husband.

Naturally, Eleanor Roosevelt must spring to mind when anyone thinks of a dynamic, active First Lady. Her role seemed almost a counterpart to FDR’s, and perhaps she really ran things behind the scenes when her husband’s health did not enable him to do so. Mrs. Roosevelt’s career even continued after her husband’s death, and she was an equally acclaimed woman in her own right. Perhaps it was the only benefit of the war, in that women at that time had a certain degree of public presence and worked when the men were fighting overseas.

Jacqueline Kennedy — though Sphinx-like, feminine, graceful, and in a sadly traditional marriage that tolerated rampant cheating–was extraordinary in her championing of the arts. In her quiet way, she developed a culture and served as the impetus for other institutions that brought high culture to America, as well as boosted American’s profile overseas. Well read, multilingual, and intelligent, it wasn’t till later in life that she got the chance to use her knowledge when she worked as a book editor in New York.

Betty Ford was also an arts lover. A bohemian former dancer and divorcée, she supported equal rights for women, various “liberal” social causes that are considered normal today, and made alcoholism and its treatment a visible issue through her own struggles before founding the Betty Ford Clinic. But certainly, she came under criticism for discussing taboo issues in public. It was possibly one of the first times that a First Lady showed the cracks in the façade, showed that she was human and not simply an elegant figurehead to host state dinners.

But then jump ahead a couple of decades to the fiercely intelligent and accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton. There had been no one quite like her before coming to the White House, as she arguably could have shared the job of president with her husband. Mrs. Clinton tried to embark on major health care reform and tried to get seriously involved with policy matters. Unfortunately, she was bullied, criticized, and harassed for trying to hold equal role of her own in the White House. The White House experienced a setback with Mrs. Laura Bush. She returned to a more traditional role, championing reading and literacy, which were more “safe” causes. This is not in any way to criticize Mrs. Bush’s intelligence, for if you have heard her speak, it comes across very strongly and she is well read. Some might even say that she is more intelligent than her husband!

With Michelle Obama, we have again revisited a situation not unlike that of Mrs. Clinton. She is a brilliant woman who made her way from Southside Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law School, then to a law firm and then the University of Chicago. Granted, she has two small children and she is clearly a very devoted mother who has her kids as a priority. But why is this brilliant woman not encouraged to use her legal knowledge to do more for society and hold a strong position of her own? She has certainly done great work with military families as well as tackling childhood obesity and healthy eating, which is extremely crucial at this time. But the point is–

These highly educated– women who should not be criticized if they choose to spend more time with their children or if they want to ease off on the stress of having a career–should also have the option to pursue a dynamic career while in the White House that utilizes their previous training. Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, is a wonderful example, as she has a doctorate and teaches full time at a community college while still being involved in helping military families as her “cause.” First Ladies should not be expected to only take on “neutral” causes that are “safe.” They should be allowed to help make policy, serve in the cabinet, etc., because after all, they did support their husband in his campaign to become president, are obviously in the same political party, and are often extremely knowledgeable themselves about politics. And often overseas, presidential/prime ministerial spouses hold their own independent careers such as Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s husband, who is a chemistry professor.

We need to rethink the role of the presidential spouse, especially because there is a possibility in 2017 we will have a First Man!   William Jefferson Clinton has already served in the highest position in the country, so will he have to relinquish everything, including the Clinton Global Initiative, by his own independent work? He knows more about the White House and presidency than anybody, so why not put it to use?

Naturally, there are going to be lots of questions as to what are the ethical boundaries of this role and where is there a conflict of interest? These are things that will have to be worked out, and that will be a large cause for debate. However, this is a necessary step in empowering that rarest gem of a woman, the First Lady.