Caroline Kennedy vs. Hillary Clinton
Why when women disagree is it always a “cat fight?”
-Mary Dixie Carter
Ever since it became clear that Caroline Kennedy was interested in Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate Seat, we’ve heard some grumblings from a few of Hillary Clinton’s supporters – some questioning about whether or not Kennedy’s qualified. Caroline Kennedy now seems determined to get the job, calling several New York political officials to express her interest, planning a “listening” tour of upper New York State and possibly agreeing to some high-profile interviews about her goals if she becomes senator. Quite a change, for the formerly low-key Kennedy daughter.
Hillary Clinton, herself, has not come out in support of Kennedy, but neither has she said anything against her. (On Tuesday, she apparently told her supporters to hush.) Anyway, many pundits are focusing on the notion of a Clinton-Kennedy clash – left-over animosity between Clinton and Kennedy because Kennedy publicly backed Barack Obama during the primaries. Now, in Clinton’s defense, a lot of her friends want that soon-to-be vacant Senate Seat. If I were her, I would probably keep quiet too, because, at this point, what’s the upside in speaking her mind. It’s Governor Paterson’s decision and she won’t have much say in the matter. If she chooses someone and doesn’t get her way, she’ll look weak. If she endorses Caroline Kennedy and Kennedy is chosen, that’s great, but she’s needlessly angering a bunch of her friends and supporters.
The media focused a similar kind of attention on a seeming tension or power struggle between Clinton, Secretary of State-pick, and Susan Rice, Obama’s choice for U.N. Envoy – suggesting the two of them are vying for position on Obama’s foreign policy team, staking out their territory. Well maybe they are, and maybe they’re not, but the language that commentators use when talking about this, or any rivalry between women, is slightly different than what they’d say about men.
And recently there was the coverage of Carla Bruni and her interactions with a couple of the attractive women in Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet, specifically Rachida Dati, the French Justice Minister, and Rama Yade, the junior minister for Human Rights. Expressions that suggest a “cat fight” were used in this instance and all the above instances as well – to describe women’s aggressive behavior.
When “cat fight” language is used about powerful women, it diminishes them. The words conjure up an image of people who are shrill and out of control. Their arguments seem petty and superficial, not substantial. And, I might add, we don’t want a leader to be the kind of person who would ever end up in a cat fight. We want someone who’s centered, but someone who could, if necessary, inflict serious damage, not just scratches and surface wounds.
For the role of Senator or Secretary of State or U.S. Envoy, physical strength is not required. But language can confuse the issue. “Cat fight” language can remind the reader or listener that the person in question weighs less than a man and is not as physically strong as a man. And it can inaccurately draw a correlation between physical strength and emotional strength. We want gravitas in our leaders. And cats don’t have gravitas.
But a Clinton-supporter Kennedy -supporter skirmish may be just the first political battle Caroline Kennedy will have to handle if she becomes New York’s Senator. Friends say she is ready. After all, it’s in her genes.