Pearls, Politics & PowerPhoto by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Former governor Madeleine Kunin at her home in Burlington.
Madeleine Kunin has headed both the state’s executive office and the U.S. embassy in Switzerland, so you may wonder whether to greet her as “Governor” or “Ambassador.” But as the retired politician reveals in her soon-to-be-released book, courtesy titles are the least of her concerns.
“Women are not supposed to want power, somewhat like sex — it’s OK if they just receive it,” she writes. “But politics is where the decisions are made that determine whether our children will go to war, whether our parents will live in security, and whether Earth itself will continue as we know it.”
Talk of sex from an elder stateswoman? Kunin’s just getting started. As seen in her upcoming 224-page book “Pearls, Politics & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead,” Vermont’s first and so far only female governor remains vocal almost two decades after leaving the Statehouse.
Kunin sees women serving their community and country as mothers, wives and workers. But when she looks at government, she laments that the female half of the population holds, in a supposed democracy, only 16 percent of seats in Congress, top corporate offices and lower houses of parliament worldwide.
“Much has changed since I was governor, but I thought there’d be a lot more women in politics,” Kunin, 74, says in an interview. “I feel passionately about getting more women engaged in issues and change. I realized the best way to get the point across is through stories. You can’t lecture people, but when people hear stories, they think, ‘Maybe I could do this.’”
And so Kunin interviewed 100 female leaders (from Vermont’s youngest legislator, 26-year-old Rachel Weston of Burlington, to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), signed with progressive White River Junction publisher Chelsea Green (the folks behind Naomi Wolf’s best-selling “The End of America”), and will embark this month on a yearlong coast-to-coast tour (from Castleton to California) to promote her book.
“It is time for a call to action, for new political leadership to emerge from the women of America,” Kunin writes in her introduction. “We can no longer wait for incremental change; it has been too slow. Parity will not be achieved by patience. To arrive at equal representation, we must mobilize both our anger and our optimism: anger at what is wrong in America and optimism that it can be changed for the better.”
Kunin didn’t set out to be an officeholder. A young mother some four decades ago, she simply wanted neighbors to sign her petition to mark a nearby railroad crossing with a red flashing light.
“I was worried my children might be injured on their way to school,” she recalls today.
That budding civic concern led to her becoming a Vermont House member for her Burlington neighborhood in 1972, the state’s first female Democratic whip in 1974 and first female leader of the Appropriations Committee in 1976. Winning election as lieutenant governor in 1978, she was second in command to Republican Gov. Richard Snelling.
“Perhaps there is no stronger motivation to run for office than to have to listen to someone else’s speeches in polite silence and think about what you would say instead,” she writes in her book.
Kunin succeeded Snelling as governor upon his retirement in 1984, then served nationally as deputy secretary of the U.S. Education Department in 1993 and internationally as ambassador to her native Switzerland in 1996.
Settling back in Vermont, the divorcee made news two years ago by remarrying (the New York Times spun her small wedding to John Hennessey into a big Sunday feature). But otherwise she has maintained a low profile teaching part-time at the University of Vermont.
Then Kunin heard many of her female students voice apathy toward politics. “Why bother?” they asked. Their professor-at-large decided to answer that question by penning her book.
“Making a donation for breast cancer research is good,” she begins her argument, “but obtaining funding for millions of dollars for research in the federal budget is so much better.”
Kunin can point to a myriad of questions plaguing children, families, education, health care and the environment, as well as eroding communication and cooperation in the increasingly polarized world of politics.
She sees women — “more inclusive, collaborative, consensus builders” — as the answer.
“It is time for women to change both the content and style of leadership,” she writes. “In 1920 we won the right to vote. Now we must use that right to change what is wrong in our country.”
'Damned if you …’
More girls graduate from and get better grades in college than boys. Yet the United States ranks 69th worldwide in the percentage of women in lower houses of parliament.
Why aren’t women electing more of their own?
To find out, Kunin spoke to top high school juniors at Vermont’s Girls State model government program. Many dismissed politics with one word: “dirty.”
Talking with female officeholders, Kunin also heard about discrimination. Weston, the youngest member of the Vermont House, told of her first meeting with an older male colleague. As Kunin writes in her book: “He told her he would have liked to have been introduced to her with her clothes off.”
Other stories are more subtle, if not less stinging. Campaigning for her first term as governor, Kunin faced this newspaper feature by a male reporter: “On observance of Kunin’s pearls, stockings, shoes and coiffured hair, the women turned their talk to more serious matters: ‘Are there pleats in the front of her dress?’”
Gender stereotyping, Kunin says, is not always malicious.
“Women are capable of gender stereotyping other women — for a lot of people, it’s unconscious. Both men and women are prone to it because we have all grown up in the same culture where men are given the benefit of the doubt and women are given the burden of proof.”
Other obstacles female leaders face: raising campaign money, facing public and press questions, losing privacy, balancing family responsibilities and, finally, expressing emotion. Bill Clinton can tear up at a public event and be seen as caring. But Hillary Clinton and her peers?
“Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” Kunin says.
She points to a 2007 study by Catalyst, an international nonprofit corporate research group, that says when female leaders “act consistent with gender stereotypes they are considered too soft. If they go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough.”
Serving up tips
Kunin not only pinpoints the problems but also maps out solutions.
“The first step,” she says: “showing up.”
That starts with more women speaking up at public meetings.
Shy? Kunin was, too. She says she grew more outgoing during her college years by working as a waitress.
“Working for tips is not unlike working for votes. The customer has to be pleased.”
If you’re a wife and mother, you also have to manage your time. When Kunin entered the Legislature, her children were ages 2, 6, 8 and 11. Commuting daily to Montpelier, she booked babysitters, made meals at 11 the night before and taught her first husband, Dr. Arthur Kunin, how to prepare a simple stir-and-simmer stew.
She says of husbands: “The easiest way to juggle family and career is to marry the right guy.” (She credits both her first husband, the first man to join the Legislative Wives Club, and her current spouse, who she thanks in the book’s acknowledgments for being “the most enthusiastic supporter of women in politics I know.”)
As for children, she always told aides: “Whenever a child calls, no matter what meeting I am in — interrupt.”
Her family had a dozen years of practice by the time she ran for governor.
“The gradual approach makes it easier to manage time, fund-raise and handle the loss of privacy,” she writes. “You get used to the rise in temperature like slowly stepping into a hot tub, lowering your body one inch at a time.”
Even so, politics can feel like a cauldron. Kunin’s book features such headings as “What About Abortion?” and “On the Inside: Playing by the Rules, Power, and Working with the Jerks.”
“The difference between looking at the ‘jerks’ from the outside and negotiating with them on the inside is that most (not all) politicians are more nuanced than their caricatures,” she writes.
Her advice: “Experience helps. Compartmentalizing helps. Laughter helps. Good media relations help. Having a good shoulder to cry on certainly helps.”
(Although “the media are fickle,” she adds.)
‘Who knows better’
Kunin illustrates her points through interviews with 100 women in local, state, national and international posts.
What do you say to cynics who wonder why a wife and mother would trade the family home for public office?
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says in the book: “Who knows better about the issues that affect children and families than someone who is experiencing them?”
What do you say to a child who asks the same question?
Texas State Senator Leticia Van de Putte found her 10-year-old had the answer: “Because there are not enough mommies there.”
How do you deal with the rough-and-tumble?
U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez answers for herself and her sister, fellow California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez: “I grew up in a family of seven where my brothers teased me unmercifully, and that sort of prepared me for politics.”
Even so, why endure all the aggravation?
Loretta Sanchez, taking her turn, speaks for all women: “We are very underrepresented in politics at this point. It’s just a matter of time when women realize the men aren’t getting it done so we have to get in there and do it ourselves.”
The book makes special mention of Vermont, where women hold the highest rate of state legislative seats — 37.8 percent compared to 23.5 percent nationwide.
Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz tells Kunin about growing up in a Jewish family that believed in “tikun olum” (Hebrew for “repair the world”). Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington cites her great-uncle Stuart Symington, the late U.S. senator from Missouri.
But with $24.95 hardcover and $14.95 paperback editions to be sold nationally, the book boasts Hillary Clinton as its big draw. Kunin has known the former first lady since Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. The two women once skied together in Switzerland (“happily at the same pace,” Kunin reveals in her book). They sat down in the senator’s Washington office for a chapter about the current presidential campaign.
“And, yes, dear reader,” Kunin writes, “I endorsed her.”
Kunin finished her manuscript just after the New Hampshire primary in January. She then served as co-chairwoman of Clinton’s Vermont campaign and escorted the candidate’s 28-year-old daughter, Chelsea, on a recent visit to Burlington. With Clinton’s presidential bid still undecided, Kunin’s chapter title “A Woman President in the United States?” remains apropos.
“The question itself is interesting,” Kunin writes. “No one has ever asked — except possibly in a prehistoric matriarchy — ‘Is the country ready for a man to be leader?’
“We expect a lot from a woman running for president,” she continues. “She has to change the rules of the political game, while playing by the rules, if she wants to win.
“The irony is that Senator Clinton is the first woman to be qualified for the presidency, to have the requisite experience, intelligence and judgment to be ‘presidential’; but having reached this threshold, she is considered by some to be too qualified, too scripted, too ‘same old,’ or too much of a politician, carrying the baggage the word implies.”
Kunin caps her book with a call for women to vote.
“The assumption is that if women voted in proportion to their numbers in the population, they could determine the outcome of many elections.”
And a call for women to run.
“There is consensus that the chief barrier to electing more women is disarmingly simple: No one has asked them to run. Some women may cling to the old-fashioned idea that you don’t dance until you are asked.”
Kunin isn’t afraid to step out. She’ll start a year-long book tour March 20 at Castleton State College and continue to more than three dozen stops throughout New England and the nation, including Austin (Texas), Boston and Chicago, right up to Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Is she excited?
“Depends on the airlines.”
Kidding aside, she’s eager to start.
“Imagine a Congress that is 50 percent female and representative of the population of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans,” she writes. “Would this Congress have reformed immigration laws, dealt with climate change, provided universal access to health care, and not supported a guns blazing American cowboy foreign policy?”
Kunin acknowledges politics isn’t for every woman.
“But being an informed citizen, ready to speak out for what she believes,” she says, “is for everyone.”
Contact Kevin O’Connor at email@example.com.
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