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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend keynote speaker at SUNY Potsdam forum

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POTSDAM - Kathleen H. Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York) and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, began her keynote speech at SUNY Potsdam by asking audience members to think of a person in a position of power and then asked everyone who’d thought of a powerful woman to raise their hands.

To her surprise, a fairly large number of audience members held up their hands, but Ms. Townsend said she often sees that far fewer audience members had thought of a powerful woman. Other times she saw that no one had a powerful woman in mind.

Visiting the college for the 2013 SUNY Potsdam Academic Festival, Ms. Townsend’s keynote speech was focused on issues of women’s rights, women in positions of power and why the scales of power are tipped so favorably toward men in the U.S. She believes men hold most positions of economic and political power in the U.S. because of our history of Founding Fathers and other paternal figures, our country’s lack of a queen and the fact most Americans don’t worship the Virgin Mary, as many Latino Catholics do. Other reasons, she believes, are more basic, such as the fact a man can don a suit and jacket and not be judged by the appearance of his clothing.

“Guys have a uniform. I’ve learned I’m judged by what I wear,” said Ms. Townsend, who recounted that some of the first articles printed about her after she took office in Maryland took shots at whether she wore high-heels and makeup.

In addressing the balancing act that powerful women must consistently dress in a feminine though professional manner, Ms. Townsend praised an unlikely political figure: former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah L. Palin. Though Ms. Townsend does not agree with many of Ms. Palin’s views, she said she was pleased to see a “sexy” woman rise up in the political world.

She pointed out that good looks are an advantage for male politicians - including her uncle, the late President John F. Kennedy, and she believes the gates are opening for women to benefit politically by being attractive.

“In the next 20 years, you’re going to have sexy women in power,” Ms. Townsend said.

She told a number of anecdotes of her youth throughout the speech, touching on her influences of being a well-off and well-educated woman in the male-run world of the 1960s. She said that if you asked her to think of a person in power back then she would have undoubtedly thought of a man.

“Back then the image was that guys ran the country. Women ran fundraisers or stayed home,” Ms. Townsend said.

She pointed out women’s rights have come a long way since the height of her family’s political power, but wants to see more done to protect and empower women looking for success in the corporate or political world. One example she used is the lack of family leave in America. Years ago, while trying to land a job as an attorney, Ms. Townsend said she was repeatedly denied a job because she has children - even though her father had 11 children and no one ever raised that as an issue throughout his political career.

She also offered students three pieces of advice to overcome obstacles and reach their goals. The first is to be a part of something important (in her case, a political campaign) to make lifelong friends. The second is to build a “ramp” to overcome an obstacle, like how she went on a rafting trip to get closer to David Lee Townsend, one of her Harvard instructors at the time and now her husband of almost 40 years. The third is that “sometimes to do the right thing you have to do the wrong thing,” which she learned from her mother, Ethel Kennedy, who once was charged with stealing horses after choosing to liberate malnurished horses they found in a Virginia stable, according to Ms. Townsend.

Near the end of the discussion, Ms. Townsend answered questions with a sense of blunt humor that some may find surprising of both a former politician and a woman in her 60s. One student told Ms. Townsend of a female friend who was underfeeding herself in an effort to become thinner and supposedly more attractive, because she believes good looks are essential to achieve power in a paternal society.

Ms. Townsend told the student that her friend was wrong, because men “like butts” and are interested in “women they can grab onto.”

Throughout the night, Ms. Townsend was eager to help empower the next generation of potential leaders to create the change she would like to see in the world, including making progress on women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and reducing the income gap in America.

“I believe each of you can make a change in the world. Your life will be much more interesting if you go for power and go for power that helps others,” Ms. Townsend said.

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