The Right To Be Opinionated

Teresa Heinz Kerry's unsolicited observations


The mini-controversy over Teresa Heinz Kerry's outspoken persona brings on a sense of deja vu. Twelve years ago, the controversial figure was Hillary Rodham Clinton—a career woman who made waves by saying that she wasn't the kind of wife who "stayed home, baked cookies, and had teas" and by openly aspiring to a unique "co-presidency" with her husband.

Throughout her tenure as first lady, Hillary Clinton remained both a target for ferocious attacks and an object of adulation. In the eyes of many feminists, any criticism directed at her was evidence of sexist prejudice against strong or "uppity" women. Novelist Erica Jong compared her to Joan of Arc and wrote that her troubles stemmed largely from "the undeniable fact that there is no way for a smart woman to be public without being seen as a treacherous Lady Macbeth figure."

Today, it is Heinz Kerry who is ruffling feathers. The recent incident in which she referred to the "un-American traits" of some political opponents, then accused a reporter who questioned her about it of putting words in her mouth and finally told him to "shove it," has surely reinforced her image as a loose cannon and a potential embarrassment to John Kerry's candidacy.

In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last Tuesday, Heinz Kerry made a transparent reference to her image problems, casting them in terms of her gender. "My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called 'opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish," she declared. "And my only hope is that, one day soon, women—who have all earned their right to their opinions—instead of being called opinionated, will be called smart and well-informed, just like men."

But how many people in America, in 2004, do not believe that women have a right to speak their minds? Or that women cannot be smart and well-informed? After all, on the other side of the political aisle, one of the chief architects of and spokespersons for President Bush's foreign policy is National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Karen Hughes, the former White House communications director, is another strong and smart woman who is a part of the president's inner circle.

It's doubtful that back in 1992 when Rodham Clinton became a lightning rod, most Americans had a problem with women in public life. There was no shortage of women in politics by then, including women who held Cabinet posts and who were running for public office. One big difference is that Rodham Clinton was not running for anything: She was in the spotlight as a candidate's wife, and later as the president's wife. She did not have to answer to the voters or to win confirmation from Congress.

The same is true of Heinz Kerry today. Of course all people, men or women, have a right to their opinions. But the only reason her opinions are being heard is because she is the presidential candidate's wife. It's true that Heinz Kerry is a distinguished philanthropist in her own right; but would it be too uncharitable (no pun intended) to point out that her philanthropy is funded by the fortune of her first husband, the late Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz?

There are many women in America today—liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat—who have truly earned the right to be public figures, in the same way as men. This cannot be said of Heinz Kerry.

In 1998, one of the five "Heinz Awards" distributed by the Heinz Family Foundation went to Carol Gilligan, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. In the citation for Gilligan's achievements, Heinz Kerry wrote, "Carol Gilligan dared to challenge the notion that men represent the paradigm for our understanding of the human condition. By introducing women's voices, she transformed that paradigm and greatly enhanced our understanding of what it means to be human for both women and men."

Yet Gilligan's work (criticized by many feminists and psychologists alike) is based on the idea of a "female" ethic of care and nurturance, contrasted to the "male" ethic of justice and individual rights. It's a kind of feel-good retro-feminism that repackages old-fashioned sentimental stereotypes as feminist virtues and urges women to participate in public life as women, not as individuals. Heinz Kerry represents a similar kind of retro-feminism: She defends women's independence from a podium where she stands because of marrying into power.