(WOMENSENEWS)–Coverage of Jacqueline Kennedy’s 47-year-old tapes has focused on her sharp eye on the world’s powerful figures, from Indira Gandhi to Charles de Gaulle to Martin Luther King.
The images on the ABC television special that accompanied the tapes were of iridescent youth and glamour. (Jackie’s daughter, Caroline, authorized the release of the long-private tapes this year, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her father’s presidency.)
But what struck me–and I suspect many other women as well–is how far this woman traveled in a remarkable life. She went from being a beautiful and decorative first lady to someone in charge of her own life, working in a field she loved, raising her children to become admirable adults and setting her own agenda about how much of herself she would share with the public.
The Jackie of the tapes was very young, and despite her seeming sophistication, very much in thrall to ideas of marriage that today seem strange and antique.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd referred to her as a "geisha," and while that’s an overstatement, she did give voice to what many people considered the proper role of a woman in that era.
Jackie referred to her union with JFK, approvingly, as both "Victorian" and "Asiatic." She said wives should get their ideas from their husbands and saw women who wanted power in their own right as unfeminine and unnatural.
In those days ambitious women were said to suffer from "penis envy," and as a 1947 bestseller proclaimed, modern women were "The Lost Sex." A passage from that book: "Male-emulating careerists have such anxiety about pregnancy that their glands secrete chemicals that destroy fertility."
In those days, nobody chortled at the idea of egg-stomping ambition.
There was also the power differential between Jack Kennedy and his bride to consider.
He was a war hero, a congressman and a U.S. senator in his late 30s when they wed. She was only 23 and had little knowledge of the world, having worked only briefly as a roving photographer for a D.C. tabloid.
Women of her class and age were expected to marry suitable young men and become young mothers who would lead country club lives and be adornments to their husbands. Jackie was basically a kid who got tossed into the very adult and brutal arenas of U.S. politics and global power. It is much to her credit that she carried it off with such panache.
Early on, she said she felt she was a "dud" with the public. It was only later, after her glamour and fluent French wowed Paris, after she redid the White House and hosted a tour on national television, that she got a sense of her political worth.
And then it all got yanked away.
She married Aristotle Onassis after Bobby Kennedy was murdered. Fearful for her children because people were killing Kennedys, she hoped that his wealth and power could keep her safe. But the marriage foundered and she realized, as she later told friends, a woman can’t live through a man.
A wealthy woman, she could have retired to the private pleasures of travel, shopping and a little charity work here and there, but she chose instead to become a working editor at a publishing house, and by all reports, a hardworking one.
She had always loved literature, books and poetry, and so she joined the legions of Manhattan women who set their alarm clocks and headed off for work each morning.
‘Not Just a Dilettante’
Of course, most working girls don’t leave elegant Fifth Avenue apartments, or get invited to the swankiest dinner parties, but she was not just a dilettante.
At first, colleagues report, she thought books might just fall into her lap, but she soon realized she had to hustle like everybody else. Jackie flew to Los Angeles to woo Michael Jackson in person for his much-sought-after memoir.
She flew alone to Paris to meet with writers, met hot prospects in restaurants and walked alone briskly through midtown Manhattan.
According to People magazine, she told her friend Gloria Steinem, "What I like about being an editor is that it expands your knowledge and heightens your discrimination. Each book takes you down another path. Some of them move people and some of them do some good."
Some people thought Steinem and Jackie O unlikely friends, but both women were born into a world that held women–outside the domestic sphere–in low regard, and both had to struggle to lead independent lives.
So while it’s intriguing to hear once again the voice of the young, glamorous woman at the end of Camelot, that wasn’t the end of her life. Jackie defied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted notion that there are no second acts in American life.
Jackie in fact transcended the magical kingdom that she for all time named. Of course she will forever be associated with the glitter and nostalgia of Camelot, but most of her life was lived outside its borders.
She overcame both triumph and tragedy to become a strong, independent woman in her own right. Her first marriage may have been "Victorian," but her life decidedly was not.
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Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research, of "The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children" (Columbia University Press). As a young reporter she covered Jackie Kennedy and the White House.
Editors’ note: Women’s eNews and Women’s Book Review and writers Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett received an honorary mention in the opinion category for Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism for a series of articles published in 2010.