By Tony Marquis
(Take a look at photo from the Gala Event – click here)
It’s been 14 years since Madeleine Kunin ended a career as a public servant, but that doesn’t mean the former Vermont governor has stopped serving the people and the state that she loves.
Kunin has written two books, founded a nonprofit organization to support women who want to run for office, taught classes at the University of Vermont, and written commentary for Vermont Public Radio — all since wrapping up her last job as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland in 1999.
She’s still passionate about expanding women’s rights and she’s putting the weight of 30 years of public office behind issues she’d like to see addressed.
On Oct. 4, Kunin spoke at the Woodstock Historical Society’s 70th Anniversary Gala. She took time to talk with the Vermont Standard in advance of her appearance.
Vermont Standard: When you were asked to speak, what made you accept the invitation?
Kunin: I do a lot of public speaking, and I’ve been speaking mostly about my most recent book, which is called “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family.” But I also admire what Vermont historical societies do because they really keep history alive and are a big influence on people having a sense of place. So I was pleased to get the invitation. I think Woodstock is a beautiful town and I admire its sense of history, its architecture and the people who have worked hard to maintain it.
VS: You come to Woodstock often?
Kunin: I was there just a week ago to meet my cousin, I’ve been there quite frequently. I think Vermont is fortunate that we have those beautiful reminders of the past and respect for historic preservation that enables us to envision what life was a hundred years ago.
VS: You’ve stayed pretty active. Writing two books. Your latest is, ostensibly, about women, but it seems it’s more about balancing work and family…
Kunin: I’m going to be talking about today’s families (at the gala). I feel my part, a bit, is to initiate policies that help families where both parents are working, or those where just a single mom is supporting the family. Policies like access to affordable child care, early childhood education, paid sick days — which is a bill now in the legislature…
VS: The proposed bill is for employers to offer at least seven days of sick time. Do you feel this is a good step forward?
Kunin: A lot of employees do get sick days, but it’s the people at the lower end of the pay scale that usually don’t. They either go to work sick or send their kids to school sick — and it’s not good for anybody.
VS: What else would you like to see changed? What are other solutions?
Kunin: I’d like to see more opportunity for workplace flexibility. So that if for example, after you have a baby, you can only work four days instead of five — there would be some kind of accommodation for that.
All these family-friendly policies are often opposed by big business, but they really improve the bottom line. Because you retain good workers, you don’t have to retrain people all the time, and people are more dedicated to their job when they work for someone who understands what the rest of their lives are like and what their obligations are.
My first bill when I was a legislator in 1974 — that was ages ago — was to increase the subsidy to child care.
VS: What made you get into politics?
Kunin: There were two major issues in the ‘70s, one was the environment and Act 250 — I wanted to defend Act 250, which was under attack then, as it is sometimes now. The ‘70s was also when the women’s movement really took off.
My life, so much comes full circle. I always thought we should have more women’s issues in public light, and yesterday we had a press conference for a new organization I founded, called Emerge Vermont, to encourage more women to run for office.
VS: You were elected to the state legislature in 1972, then ran and were elected as governor in 1984. Did you encounter any discrimination in those days?
Kunin: When I ran for governor it wasn’t exactly discrimination, it was more, “Can a woman do this?” I was the first woman running for governor in Vermont and I was the fourth woman in the country elected. Being the first, the spotlight was on you.
But I do think in Vermont today there’s no bias against women running for the legislature, I think there are treated totally equally and respected as peers. The hard part for women and men about serving on the legislature is, you know, the pay is very small, and you have to figure out how you can support your family and still serve your state.
VS: A lot is being made this year about the 101 women in Congress — it’s a record number. Do you see this as progress?
Kunin: It is a good step forward, but the real cheering will begin when we have 50 percent women. But these women now have been there long enough, so they’re in positions of authority. One example of the difference they make is the Senate armed services committee, where there are five women for the first time, and for the first time the issue of sexual assault in the military is taken seriously, that wouldn’t have happened without the women being there.
VS: What advice would you give a woman, a mother, who wanted to enter politics today?
Kunin: It’s hard not because so much of gender but because of the economics of it, I think I would advise her to get a part-time job that can fit in with her legislative duties, so she can still support her family
VS: How did you do it?
Kunin: I had a husband who helped support me — that’s the reality.
VS: Can that be changed at all?
Kunin: There are very few people serving on the legislature who are at the prime of their careers, you find either younger people or retired people. One solution is to pay more, but that’s not likely to happen. We’re a part-time citizen legislature and there’s a lot of value in that. The people are not in it for the money, and mostly not in it for the glory. I think many Vermont legislators see this as a civic duty.