Reviewed by Marilee Kenney Hunt
When asked whether racism or sexism was more of a handicap, Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to congress, flatly answered: sexism.
Women’s roles have been radically transformed over the last half-century. Society, many women included, remains ambiguous about whether a woman’s primary purpose should be wife/mother/caretaker/professional/leader/bread-earner, or some as yet undefined amalgam of the above. In this world where women regularly meet the double bind of “damned if they do and doomed if they don’t,” how can women win and lead?
Madeleine M. Kunin was the first woman governor of Vermont, and later served as Deputy Secretary of Education, U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein, and the University of Vermont’s Marsh Scholar Professor-at-Large. She uses Pearls, Politics and Power to share her personal experiences and insights, bolstering her personal story with contemporary research and commentaries from women who both observe and participate in the political structures of the United States. There is even a brief section on global women leaders—how else can we be shown examples of a woman leading a country?
Many chapters profile an exemplary woman leader involved in politics and leadership. From Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Abigail Adams (1744-1818) to Betty Friedan (1921-2006) and Gloria Steinem (1934- ) we read about individual women’s observations, actions, achievements, frustrations and discouragements as each built a piece of the road walked by today’s politically engaged women.
Much of the book focuses on women’s leadership styles, with short synopses on women in the corporate world, military, media, higher education, sports, court and law. The consensus, after briefly analyzing 45 studies on whether women and men have distinctly different leadership styles, concludes that women do have somewhat different leadership styles, but that women combine “female” and “male” styles. In one area, women distinguish themselves.
[Women] adopt a more participative and collaborative style than men...The...difference is unlikely to be genetic. Rather [it is pragmatic because] collaboration can get results without seeming particularly masculine. As women navigate their way through the double bind, they seek ways to project authority without relying on the autocratic behaviors that people find so jarring in women. A viable path is to bring others into decision making and to lead as an encouraging teacher and positive role model.
Kunin points out that the above observation is good news for the rejuvenation of democracy, because “if more women participate in government, they may be more participative and collaborative than men, which could result in a more representative and effective government.”
Lest we think that the biases faced by women seeking power in politics are easily surmounted, studies cited in the chapter on gender bias show that psychological science overwhelmingly demonstrates that “sexist behaviors, gender bias and discrimination can and do occur without...conscious beliefs or attempts to discriminate.” In other words, there is not a conscious attempt to discriminate against women, rather it is a deep, subtle, psychically imbedded bias in both men and women that women are inferior to men.
All in all, the book is a fascinating read, especially given our current political climate. We have just seen Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated in her attempt to gain the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and the Republican Party has just chosen a women to run, for only the second time in history for either party, for vice-president. A wise reader will take Pearls, Politics and Power and use it as a play-by-play to analyze the challenges faced by those women and all the others seeking political or leadership roles.
I recently ran and lost a local political race, so the book poignantly and frustratingly presents familiar dilemmas. While we gratefully acknowledge that barriers were lowered and paths cleared by untold women who spent lifetimes fighting and cajoling for equal rights to political power, we are fools doing a disservice to ourselves and our progeny if we believe that we now walk equally with our brothers. In addition to the exhaustion of political defeat, this year also brought me the exhilaration of grandmotherhood. How, with such juxtaposition, can one resign from the fray?
Fortunately, the book’s final chapter—Where Do We Go From Here?—gives guidance. There is work aplenty for all of us, for older women who have watched so many changes benefit them over their lifetimes to the young who believe the rhetoric of their age that tells them they are equal with no battles left to fight. We need the wisdom of the aged and the energy of the young. We do not choose our gender, but we can choose to fight it as our barrier.
Marilee Kenney Hunt is National Director of Strategic Planning and Policy for the Victim Rights Law Center’s (VRLC) , and was Executive Director of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence from 2003-2007.
Book Review: Madeleine Kunin’s Pearls, Politics and Power
Posted on October 29th, 2008 by Rob Williams
“Remember the ladies.”
– Abigail Adams
“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Vermonter Madeleine Kunin has led an extraordinary life.
Born in Zurich to a Jewish family, she moved to the United States as a girl, studied journalism in school, and developed an interest in literature, women’s rights, and politics. She chose to enter Vermont politics in the 1970s, and in 1984, ran and won the office of Vermont governor, serving for 3 terms before declining to run for another term in 1990. Shortly after leaving the governor’s office, Kunin found herself appointed Deputy Secretary of Education by the Clinton administration, a post she held from 1993-1997, when she became ambassador to her native Switzerland. All this, and she found time to raise four children, to boot.
And now, with the publication of Pearls, Politics, and Power, Kunin reflects on all of these experiences in a thoughtful book-length meditation about “how women can win and lead” in the public sphere.
The book is really two books in one. For much of the monograph, Kunin uses her own experiences in public life as a springboard to explore the struggles women face as political leaders, as well as considering women who have “made it” in the political world, from Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh of Egypt, to Hillary Clinton, whose failed 2008 presidential bid offers lessons for anyone interested in a serious consideration of the relationship between women and politics. She then concludes with a final chapter entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?”, which functions as a sort of “step by step” guide for supporting women as they consider involving themselves in formal politics.
Throughout the book, Kunin shares the stories of a wide variety of women who recount their own path to political office, and this is one of the best reasons for reading her account. Even in the 21st century, in the male-dominated world of formal politics, women must work that much harder to demonstrate their credibility and qualifications for the job. “The issue of competence is one that men seem to get an advantage on. For a man, either because he comes from an executive background, or just because he appears to be competent, there’s an assumption that men now how to run things and that women are compassionate and understand your feelings, but may not have executive ability,” CBS news political editor Dotty Lynch recounts to Kunin, who agrees with Lynch’s conclusions, based on her own gubernatorial run in the early 1980s. “We found that once you got a woman governor, it was a lot easier for the next one.” Indeed, and Kunin’s book provides a valuable service as inspirational text for any woman considering public life.
As a male observer, I found Kunin’s last chapter most helpful. How do we prepare more young women for public life? She offers several suggestions. First, teach community service and support programs to do the same (interestingly, the Teach for America program, which Kunin references as a good model, was started by Wendy Kopp, a college classmate, growing out of her educational work done as part of completing her undergraduate thesis). Second, reinvigorate feminism as an exercise in collectively imagining what is possible, politically speaking, for women, and make public office a civic virtue. Third, educate girls to exercise power, encourage community participation, and ask women to run for office. Fourth, think structurally, and fight for campaign finance reform and other institutional changes that open up more opportunities for women to lead. One final suggestion, and it a good one – establish a mentoring bank to create possibilities for female leaders to encourage up-and-comers – a wonderful idea.
“Education, the culture, and laws have to change,” Kunin concludes, “to open the doors wider to the halls of power and to reprioritize the decisions that are made within those halls to achieve the government that more accurately reflects the will of the people.” Easier said than done, of course, but Kunin’s own example provides a compelling case for what is possible when women are more able to participate in public life, and her book offers us some blueprints for a way forward.
- Pearls, Politics, and Power: Vermont's only female governor seeks equal say, Rutland Herald, March 9th, 2008
- Ask — What you can do for your country, March 2008, Vermont Woman
- A brilliant manifesto (and a questionable case in point), Burlington Free Press, April 20, 2008
- Kunin’s Pearls, Politics & Power, Vermont Daily Briefing, April 20, 2008
- Pearls, Politics and Power: Reposted Review for The Book Review, the book review, May 5, 2008
- Pearls of Political Wisdom, It's Book Review Time, May 2008
- Women On Top, Publishers Weekly, April 2008.