The XX Factor

Goodbye, Kennedy Women

One thing we have lost with the passing of Edward Kennedy is a certain generational model of the proper role for the family women in public life-the mother, wife, mistress, and daughter. It’s not a model I will miss.

It starts, of course, with Rose Kennedy, described thus in a review of a book about the Kennedy women:

Rose changed from an ambitious, lively, curious girl to a wife and mother whose emotions were rigidly controlled and whose mechanisms of denial so highly refined that she could accept her husband’s lovers-notably Gloria Swanson-into her home. She passed much of that legacy on to her daughters Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Jean.

In the Kennedy family, the women preened and posed, suffered mistresses, got divorced. That iconic video of Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House, recently replayed on Mad Men , is disturbing to watch today. She honestly seems as if she’s being directed by a remote control.

If they were lucky, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, they managed to install themselves at the head of virtuous nonprofits-“charities,” we used to call them. When it came to the family’s sense of its own mission, the women were not in the picture. Here is Joe Kennedy’s line of succession , which seems medieval today:

It was understood among the children that Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the oldest boy, would someday run for Congress and, his father hoped, the White House. When Joseph Jr. was killed in World War II, it fell to the next oldest son, John, to run. As John said at one point in 1959 while serving in the Senate: “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our young brother, Ted, would take over for him.”

Now, thank god (and feminism) we have Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy, who are contained by their husbands and children, but still exist as independent women in some recognizable form.

Photograph courtesy of the JFK Library/AFP/Getty Images.