Teresa, full of grace

During her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Mrs. John Kerry taught a public course in Feminism 101.

Published July 28, 2004 3:09PM (EDT)

As presumptive candidate for first lady Teresa Heinz Kerry took the stage at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, tottering on precariously high heels and wearing a suit in fire-engine, take-no-prisoners, Nancy-Reagan red, it felt a little like watching the Olympic gymnastics final competition. Would she hit her marks? Would she stay within the lines of competition? Would she complete the triple-back-flip dismount equivalent of referring to her husband as John Kerry, and not John Heinz?

She nailed it. And more than that, she elevated the sport of having the wife of a presidential candidate prove her mettle in front of party delegates from all fifty states to a new level.

The pressure she faced has been building over a year that has garnered her a reputation as unpredictable, dangerous, batty, and, as she put it on Tuesday, "opinionated." Heinz Kerry has already shown that she is a broad with a set of brass balls. She has steadfastly refused to shut up, cursed at inappropriate moments, talked about abortion and Botox, voiced her frustrations with a Republican party of which she was a long-time member, pulled little Jack Edwards' thumb out of his mouth in front of cameras, rhapsodized about her heartbreakingly obvious love for her dead husband John Heinz, and been unable to control her habit of looking like a distracted housecat during her husband's stump speeches. On Tuesday she told NPR's Susan Stamberg that not only had someone in her office supplied Family Circle's First Lady bake-off contest with her supposed recipe for pumpkin spice cookies, but that "somebody really made it on purpose to give a nasty recipe." "I never made pumpkin cookies," Heinz Kerry said. "I don't like pumpkin spice cookies." Her biggest headlines of this week's convention came after she got pissy with a reporter from a right wing Pittsburgh newspaper and told him to "shove it."

What all this has gotten her was a sweaty-palmed, high-anxiety build-up so dramatic that she could have feasibly made an Elvis-style walk through the Fleet Center hallways a la Bill Clinton in 2000. Instead, she appeared quietly after a touching introduction by her extremely handsome youngest son Chris Heinz. In her lilting accent she began by evoking the ever-present ghost of her first husband, and telling her sons that he would be very proud of them.

She greeted delegates in each of the five languages in which she is fluent. Then, rather than demonstrating how well she's been domesticated by Team Kerry, she talked about herself. She declined to discuss fireside chats with her husband, or his devotion to their Brady-Bunch batch of kids, or his penchant for renting Jim Carey movies, or something equally humanizing and fuzzy and dopey and controlled. Heinz Kerry instead told the nation about how she spent her student years in the late 1950's protesting the encroaching apartheid regime in Johannesburg, South Africa, and lost. "I learned something then, and I believe it still," she said. "There is a value in taking a stand whether or not anyone may be noticing and whether or not it is a risky thing to do."

It was a clever note to strike, since these days, everyone notices every stand this woman takes, and they are all more than a little risky. Then, almost unthinkably, she decided to use her platform to gracefully stick a shiv in everyone who has attacked her over the past week, and over the past months. Citing her credentials as an immigrant and naturalized citizen, Heinz Kerry voiced her "personal feeling" about America and about "how precious freedom is."

"My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called 'opinionated'" -- and here Heinz Kerry deployed killer air quotes -- "is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish. My only hope is that, one day soon, women -- who have all earned the right to their opinions -- instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart or well-informed, just as men are." It was a sentiment so simple that it was radical. Radical in that it returned to the most basic tenets of the feminist movement. It was about as obvious as that old t-shirt slogan: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

Here was a woman -- with a foreign birth certificate, graduate degree, Republican resume, two husbands, three sons, and 500 million dollars in the bank - who has held fast to the most American and democratic of beliefs: that it is her right as a citizen to be her own wacked-out, Botoxed, pumpkin-cookie-hating, dead-husband-loving, Socratic self. But she has repeatedly been weighed on a scale set for women expected to whittle away their personalities until they are as anemic as their waists or their libidos. Even the smartest and most dynamic of our recent first ladies, and yes, I'm talking about the Senator from New York, have sometimes given in and allowed themselves to be shaped into what the pollsters say they need to be: content when they are really restless, reverent when they are really questioning, loving and supportive when they really want to take a pair of garden shears to their husband's wandering members.

Of course the speech was not all as invigorating as her discourse on women's rights -- her whispered tone and hypnotic cadence can get downright soporific. Things got a little worrisome when she started to talk about the Galileo and Hubble spacecrafts; she was, alas, briefly in orbit herself. But that's part of what this woman is: weird and rambly and generally unpredictable. In fact, if there were one real complaint about her appearance on Tuesday, it's that her husband's team of handlers seemed to have persuaded her to stay on script.

Commentators would soon start picking apart her performance: She didn't talk enough about her husband as a person; she was wonky; she was dry; she was quiet. A few generous observers did acknowledge that she looked hot. But in the end, she gave a speech that answered them all. Part of her point was that according to the principles that she and her husband advocate, she could have read the phone book on-stage for an hour. It is her right to speak at all -- and to say whatever she feels like saying -- that is at stake when we talk about questioning our government, participating in the process, demanding what we deserve from our leaders. Speaking of Kerry, Heinz Kerry said, "he believes that our voices -- yours and mine -- must be the voices of freedom. And if we do not speak, neither does she."

Let her keep speaking.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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