Award-winning journalist Joyce Marcel recently sat down to talk to Madeleine Kunin,Vermont’s first woman governor and author of The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, which has garnered rave reviews for its blend of pragmatism and passion.
In her cultured, polite and graceful way, Madeleine M. Kunin is angry.
And when Kunin is angry, it pays to pay attention. After all, sheâs gotÂ impressive social change credentials.
Kunin was the first female governor of Vermont (1985-1991). And she was an activist governor, at that. She was the first Jewish governor of Vermont, for that matter. The first Jewish woman ever elected governor of a U.S. state. The first woman in U.S. history to be elected governor three times. The fourth woman to be elected governor in her own right (instead of inheriting the position from a deceased husband.)
After she left office, she founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which for more than 20 years has done successful community-building projects in 24 countries, including the U.S.
She also joined the Clinton administration, first to research vice-presidential candidates, then as Deputy Secretary of Education. Later, Clinton appointed her ambassador to Switzerland, where she prodded the Swiss banking establishment into confronting its financial actions during and after World War II.
She is the author of three books â a new one, âThe New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family,â comes out this month. She is the mother of four children; the grandmother of five. Many talented women look to her as a mentor. She is currently the Marsh Scholar and Professor at Large at the University of Vermont.
Although Kunin is an accomplished politician, author, teacher, mentor and public speaker â and a master of controlled emotion â when she entered public life she wasnât even certain that she would like it â or be any good at it.
âBut I found it a fascinating world,â Kunin told me. âAll different points of view; it was stimulating. You have to be a quick study about a whole bunch of new issues. And I found the interaction with constituents interesting and fun. You may skim the surface, but the surface is huge. Instead of living a life in your own little bubble, you break out of it and see this enormous landscape of life.â
Kunin has won elections and lost elections.
âLosing isnât easy, and sometimes I took it personally,â she said. âBut you have to move on. Politics has its ups and downs. When I lost my first campaign for governor, I was devastated, even though I knew it was a tough race. You get caught by the fever. Itâs an adrenaline rush in politics that can be both wonderful and miserable, depending on where you are. But I have no regrets. The risk was worth taking.â
âShe is a gutsy, visionary politician,â said Jonathan Lash, who served as Kuninâs secretary of natural resources and is now president ofÂ Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. âI loved working for her. It was a blast. Sheâs somebody who makes âpoliticianâ not a dirty word.â
To many people around the world, Kunin has become an icon of leadership.
âMadeleine is a remarkably compassionate and visionary leader,â said George Hamilton, the president of ISC. âShe has had amazing accomplishments, from writing books to founding ISC to being a role model to women around the world. Most compelling is the way sheâs inspired women by example and by writing honestly about what it means to be a leader. I travel with her a lot. I see the response she gets. Itâs really very moving.â
One of the young women Kunin has mentored is Vermont Representative Kesha Ram (D-Chittenden 3-4), who was the student body president of the University of Vermont and, at 21, ran for state office and won.
âMadeleine Kunin was very inspirational,â Ram said. âWhen I first met her, she gave me an hour of her time, and I left feeling âWow! I would love to be involved in politics in a state where a former governor is so warm and accessible.â She was a reminder that you donât have to leave who you are when you enter the halls of power. Since then sheâs been an incredible mentor and inspiration. What also means a lot to me is that sheâs able to inspire women of all ages and backgrounds. Sheâs someone I would like to be. She embodies strength and courage. She speaks her mind and is eloquent, but she is also humble.â
At 78, I found Kunin to be both feminine and fragile.
When we met to talk at the Burlington home she shares with her second husband, retired Dartmouth professor John W. Hennessey, Jr. she was charming and lovely and, as always, elegantly dressed and coiffed. (KuninÂ dedicated her new book to Hennessey: âFor John, my first reader, editor, constant support and also â a feminist.â)
The coupleâs living room has floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking Lake Champlain. A bright red abstract by Vermont artist Emily Mason graces one wall opposite a purple forest painted by Masonâs husband, Wolf Kahn. The two paintings strike a nice ironic balance.
The house is filled with photos of Kuninâs four children, her five grandchildren, her husbandâs children and grandchildren, and portraits of her with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Geraldine Ferraro and other notables.
When talking about herself, Kunin was thoughtful, patient, honest about herself and diplomatic about others. She has a good sense of humor and isnât afraid to giggle when something strikes her as funny. She is deeply intelligent. Her focus is laser sharp. She gives a great interview.
âSheâs the complete role model,â said Jan Blittersdorf, the president and CEO of NRG Systems. âShe always looks fabulous and its never conservative or like âa woman of a certain age.â Sheâs regal. I think sheâs a fine example of a successful woman. I guess I wonder whoâs going to follow her footsteps, politically. Whatâs going to happen coming up? And is anybody going to follow her lead of supporting women in political positions? A man or a woman?â
Kunin is far from ready to retire to a rocking chair. What is making her angry now is the fact that decades after the second wave of the womenâs movement in the Sixties and Seventies âthe first wave gave women the vote â gender equality has still not been achieved in the United States. And even worse, gains made by women in multiple areas of civic society are being threatened or taken away vote by vote, state by state.
Itâs 2012, Kunin said. Things should be different.
âIâm angry that a golf course in Georgia doesnât allow women,â Kunin told me. âHow can that be? I thought we would have settled these issues.â
In the introduction to her new book she writes that by this time:
âI did not expect that women would still make 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. I expected that one-third to one-half of our Congress, governors, state legislatures and mayors would be female. I did not expect that in 2010 that number would be 17 percent in the Congress, and the United States would be tied at 69th place in the percentage of women in parliaments, out of 178 countries. I expected that one-third to one-half of corporate board members would be women. I did not expect to see that proportion stuck at 17 percent. I expected that a high percentage of the Fortune 500 companies would be led by women. I did not expect that figure to be 3 percent.Â I expected that misogyny, rape and other acts of violence against women would be widely condemned and sharply reducedâŠI expected that by 2011 grandmothers like myself would be able to tell their grandchildren of how life used to be âlong ago.ââ
Does she think the Republican right wing has declared war on women?
âIt sure sounds that way,â she told me. âItâs contraception, itâs choice, itâs violence against women, itâs cutting social programs, cutting Pell Grants. But Iâm sure they donât see it that way. Thereâs a real disconnect â they just look at issues from the male perspective. We have a huge divide.â
Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can have many children because they can support them, she pointed out. What about single mothers who canât support even their smaller families?
âTake the whole issue of contraception,â Kunin said. âI donât know if I want to say it, but they should remember that Jesus was an only child. Almost every woman and family throughout history has practiced contraception. It didnât start yesterday. The ability to control when and whether you want to bear children is the most essential thing for family life, not just for women. And making it possible for lower-income women have insurance coverage for that is just common sense, because it also dramatically reduces the number of abortions.â
Kunin is anything but shrill about a current political climate she characterizes as ânasty.â
âI guess Iâm still polite in my anger,â she said. âThatâs just my nature.â